Fort Worth — Mix Fiddler on the Roof with There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, and you come up with something rather like Hershel and the Hannukah Goblins at Amphibian Stage Productions, a lively new addition to the usual holiday fare.
Scott Zenreich’s original adaptation of Eric Kimmel’s Caldecott Honor book is the company’s first-ever children’s holiday show—and it’s a keeper. Told with humor, heart, and a bit of a “boo” factor, the 50-minute show worked magic on an audience full of preschool and elementary-age children—who wiggled and gasped as the goblins appeared, and swung their feet to catchy klezmer-style original music from Dallas composer Patrick Emile.
And the goblins—ooh. Kyle Igneczi’s designs, expertly handled by a six-person ensemble and enlivened by David Lanza’s fun sound effects, kept the little audience fascinated. We won’t give away too much, except to say that the smaller goblins earned every laugh they got, and the King of the Goblins is just scary enough…without making any little person cry.
Kimmel’s book sets this story in a small Russian village of long ago, and uses a character, Hershel of Ostropol, who appears in many Jewish folk tales. Hershel is a wanderer, a fellow full of tricks who always seems to find a way to wiggle out of trouble. In this story, Hershel comes to a small village to celebrate Hannukah, the eight-day Jewish “festival of lights.” But the village is dark, and the mood even darker. Hershel, cry the villagers, there are wicked goblins in our synagogue at the top of the hill—and these goblins hate Hannukah! There’s a curse, and someone (they look hopefully at Hershel) needs to spend eight nights in the synagogue, lighting a new candle on the menorah every night. On the last night, the King of the Goblins must light the candles himself—and only then will the Hannukah curse be broken.
Can Hershel survive all those nights in the goblin-haunted synagogue? And how will he trick the King into lighting the candles? Played with supreme confidence by Stan Graner, Hershel seems like just the “mensch” this village needs.
There’s a frame to the storytelling: Hershel comes to life as a young boy (the excellent William Bartell) begins to read it aloud in his modern-day bedroom. In fact, the bedroom designer Allen Dean has put together is so realistic that one little audience member coming in went right to the toy shelves and started to play. As he reads, suddenly there are villagers crowding the stage, smiling and waving him to keep going. (The nicely rendered costumes are by Brittny Mahan.)
Both Graner and Bartell hold our attention as the lead characters—and Graner gets to show off his fine singing voice—but the ever-moving ensemble becomes the spine (or do we mean funnybone?) of the story, as the actors morph from villagers to goblins of all shapes and sizes. For a short little show, this one pulls out a lot of stops—stilt-walking, masks, and a veritable sound-and-light show (imaginative lighting by Kenneth Farnsworth)—to make sure its audience stays wide awake. The excellent ensemble includes Justin Duncan, Josh Kumler, Karen Matheny, Kelsey Milbourn, Mackenzie Schullen and Mitchell Stephens.
Hershel definitely fills a gap, giving young Jewish theatergoers something of their own in a holiday season full of fairies, elves and Santa, but the play has plenty of crossover appeal for audiences. It’s a blend: there’s the outright comedy of the Great Goblin Hunt, but mixed with a clear reverence for Hanukkah and its traditions. At moments throughout the play, Hershel pauses to light another candle and sing the blessing that goes with it: Baruch atah Adonai—Blessed are You, Lord our God. “Amen,” sing the villagers, quietly. From his present-day bedroom, the boy watches, and we hear some children in the audience begin to sing along—this is clearly a melody they’ve heard before.
It’s a heart-touching little moment…and then it’s back to the goblins!
Will Hershel return next year? We can only hope Amphibian makes it a holiday repeat. This is children’s theater done right: more than just good enough for kids, it’s an imaginative and fresh bit of storytelling and stagecraft.