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Wonka Creator's The Big Friendly Giant a Whimsical, Subversive Hit for Childsplay

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Roald Dahl wrote a bunch of dense, sometimes sweetly twisted fiction for adults, but his works that best survived crossing the pond to the U.S. were those for children, including the deliciously cruel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, and The BFG (short for "Big Friendly Giant").

I hadn't ever read this particular story, so I was at least as excited as the children in Childsplay's Tempe audience (probably more) to learn about BFG's secret existence and his job collecting and distributing good dreams to sleeping children, his vegetarian ways among the human-eating inhabitants of Giant Country (who are also not believed to exist), and his friendship with an orphaned young human girl, Sophie, who has to stay with BFG for a bit while this whole secrecy/people-eating thing gets straightened out. (There are some scary parts; the show is recommended for children five and older.)

Like Chocolate Factory (and like, for that matter, most good kid lit), BFG features one brave, resourceful child, one or two kind, clever adults, and a bunch of ridiculous yahoos. That Queen Elizabeth and BFG are apparently the smartest adults in the world just makes the story that much better. Well, that and the fart jokes.

Rebecca Akins' costuming and puppets, Carey Wong's set design, Rick Paulsen's lighting effects, and Anthony Runfola's sound and projection designs merge into a colorful, bewitching, storybooky world onstage. How do you get giants to seem like people, people to seem like giants, regular-size people to seem tiny, and horrible monsters to seem real and funny? How do you travel the hours and leagues between enchanted lands and the human world within an hour and a half, including intermission? There's a little hint in the photo above, but I don't want to give away more, except to say that although puppetry is a big part of what makes the show work, BFG isn't a puppet show.

What was every bit as cool was the Q&A afterward. The youngest audience members had the best questions about how things worked -- some effects that I had not even found amazing until they were explained -- and the cast, most of whom spend school year after school year working one-on-one with students, had quick and comprehensible answers for everything. (Which is more that I can say for a lot of talkbacks in rooms full of adult artists.)

Probably my favorite performance, and the best performance I've ever seen from Childsplay vet Dwayne Hartford, is his turn here as BFG. His naturalness as a supernatural guy whose grammar and vocabulary are about 40 degrees off plumb (but, really? Your land, your language) makes us want to join in Sophie's encouragement: "I just love the way you talk." His choice to live on the flesh of the vile snozzcumber instead of tasty humans (there's no stopping for takeout at Green or Loving Hut in Giant Country) seems ever so sincere and noble and just a little sad. And Hartford subtly puts the awful groaners right over the plate, as when he's explaining the other giants' dining preferences (I paraphrase): "People from Wellington taste like boots. And boots taste bootiful."

The Big Friendly Giant continues with four performances this Saturday and Sunday, May 22 and 23, at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 West Rio Salado Parkway.

For tickets, $15 to $25, click here or call 480-350-2822.

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