By Betsy Wolfe
With Broadway shows consisting mainly of revivals or productions based on movies and television, the world premiere of Quest Theatre Ensemble’s family musical Tomato Queen brings a welcome and fresh story to the stage.
In fact, Quest has a history of introducing new material since being founded in 2002 by Jason Bowen, Andrew Park and Jeremy Lawson. Their mission: being “committed to making theater accessible to everyone…” They offer their productions free of charge “so that anyone can participate.” A free production doesn’t always inspire folks to anticipate quality, but Tomato Queen, with book and lyrics by Christine Hodak and music by Scott C. Lamps, doesn’t disappoint.
Filled with likeable characters, this colorful production brings joy to the stage. The story surrounds an 11-year-old girl, Camina (Molly LeCaptain), the only camper at the dubious “commercial success camp” run by Mr. Bogs, an enterprising hack. Camina is driven to create the world’s most perfect tomato, while an Evil Scientist (Nate Buursma) rises to destroy her efforts. Please see the full summary of the show on Quest’s site here.
LeCaptain, though clearly not 11 years old, portrays the likeable innocence and strength of a determined little girl while never becoming bratty or too mature. Taylor Keenan and Brett Taylor play Camina’s parents with a fun frenetic nod to helicopter parents striving to push their offspring to overachieve. Kent Joseph channels Mr. Bogs with the perfect combination of wry humor and vaudevillian elegance, and Vincent L Lonergan as the shy but spunky Doormouse gives a sweet performance. Buursma does an admirable job showcasing the nutty evil genius villain.
The standout in this cast is Kirk Osgood as the hawker (also playing every other bit character woven throughout the storyline). Osgood is funny, capricious and creative onstage. His character skills complement the story without chewing the scenery or hogging all the applause.
Director Andrew Park created well-paced scenes that entertain and at times interact with the audience. For a church basement, the stage area in the Blue Theater is impressive. Along with an attractive set, designed by Rick Rupard, one wouldn’t expect such a complex fly system or lighting plot to be achievable. Lighting Designer Eric Vigo delivers beautifully. Kudos to Tech Director Julie Taylor and Puppet/Prop Designer Megan Hovany for creative effects such as the Ferris Wheel and the Hornworm.
Catchy, clever songs forward the plot, including the most memorable: “Success Camp Jingle,” “Do Your Best” and “Go Go Grow.” Some of these reprised throughout the evening and were sung along with by the audience. Ellen Morris leads a combo of piano, percussion and bass for an accompaniment that drives the action, but never covers the ensemble.
Tomato Queen was also workshopped by Quest prior to presenting the show for this premier. While admirable for Quest to go to such lengths for a new show, a fresh perspective from someone outside their company might have helped to work out the bugs still present. Though beautiful and well sung by Keenan, “The Mother’s Song” slams the action to a grinding halt, seemingly because of want for a ballad. The point of the song should have been one line of dialogue. No ballad was necessary.
The other issue comes with the blocking around an imaginary wall between the inside and outside of a shed. The audience is confused for most of the first act because characters “inside” and “outside” often interact with each other, walking in the wrong space. Applying a tape line to the floor to denote the wall could fix that for both the audience and the actors.
All in all Quest’s production of Tomato Queen is a delight for both adults and children. With free admission, a large family can luxuriate in a day of live theater.
“Tomato Queen” runs through March 29 at The Blue Theatre, 1809 W. Gregory Ave., Chicago. Performances are Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Reservations are recommended- call (312)458-0895. More information is available at www.questensemble.org.