Before I tell you why and how very much I hated Theater League's The Wonder Bread Years, allow me to explain that this is a show I was born to love. I am the audience for this nostalgic gander at life as a boomer-era kid, one of those poor saps who's overjoyed at the sight of a Slinky or a candy necklace; who gets a lump in his throat at the sound of the Batman theme; who buys from eBay old toys he once owned. I'm the very person for whom Pat Hazell wrote this rather clever paean to middle-aged kids and our sweet suburban memories.
I was in a jolly mood when I arrived at the theater, having spent the morning reading a biography of Paul Lynde and the afternoon enjoying a Match Game '74 marathon on the Game Show Network. My pleasure ended the moment John Mueller skipped onto the Herberger's Stage West to begin what turned out to be a sleepy, lackluster reading of what should have been an up-tempo musing on the joys of childhood.
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Mueller is one of those fellows who looks simultaneously like a man and a boy, which should make him perfect for a one-man show in which he regales us with "his" (actually Hazell's) and our childhood memories, few of which are relevant if one doesn't happen to be between the ages of 35 and 45. Mueller leads the crowd in jingle sing-alongs (for Campbell's soup and Jiffy Pop popcorn) and mutters reminiscences (about Red Dye #2; green M&Ms; Toughskin Jeans) as if he's swallowed one too many hits of Paxil, so lethargic is his recitation. Maybe he's just bored with the show, which, after all, has been running for a month. Whatever the reason for Mueller's sluggish reading, it's what's behind the ultimate failure of this otherwise affable flashback.
Hazell has confined most of his product-specific material to Act One, which should be alive with the author's clever memories of Sugar Smacks and lawn jarts and Kool-Aid commercials, but isn't, because Mueller is only half there when he could be recalling pop culture icons with some amount of joy, or at least a little energy. Act Two is given over to more general gee-it-was-swell memories of childhood, like family vacations or the joys of that long, kid-friendly holiday stretch that began with Halloween and wound up with Christmas. Hazell's single slip-up is the preachy tone of his tacked-on ending sermon about kids approaching life with a sense of wonderment, while adults do not. In the case of this production, actor Mueller had me wondering, at very least, how in the world he managed to make such a nicely written piece of theater so darn dreary.
The Wonder Bread Years
Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street
Continues through August 28. Call 602-252-8497.
The audience on Saturday appeared to love Wonder Bread, squealing at the mention of Silly Putty and singing along with the expertly edited clips of old TV commercials that opened the show, which is the high point of the evening, since Mueller is offstage during this section. Still, the biggest laugh went to an audience member who shared about having taken a three-legged poodle named Lucky to Show and Tell in the fourth grade, and I did overhear the people with whom we shared our balcony -- a noisy group who, in all fairness, appeared to be a good decade too old to relate to much of the '60s-specific first act material -- telling one another that they thought the show was "just okay."
My companion, who has attended theater with me every weekend for nearly a decade and has sat patiently through some truly dreadful programs, apparently agreed with them: He slept through most of Wonder Bread's second act, although he did it so politely that I didn't notice. I was too busy trying to stay awake myself.