The Borrowers


By Philip Pearce

THE FOREST THEATER GUILD has launched the grand reopening of Carmel’s refurbished Outdoor Forest Theater with an amiable homegrown musical called The Borrowers.

Homegrown only as a musical, with book and words by local producer/writer/director Walt deFaria and music by local legendary composer Stephen Tosh, who died just weeks before the show opened last weekend.

For deFaria, other and nonmusical incarnations of The Borrowers have been a continuing property and project off and on since the 1970s. That was when critic and radio personality Clifton Fadiman introduced him to a popular series of children’s books by English author Mary Norton. They told of a parallel world of four-inch-high people who hide beneath your floorboards secretly “borrowing” those things that go unaccountably missing like socks, eye glasses, pins, needles, paper clips, which the borrowers then use to create the equipment and furnishings of their tiny subterranean households.

Already involved in family-oriented TV production, deFaria, in partnership with Charles Schulz of “Peanuts” fame and Foot, Cone & Belding, secured the media rights to Mary Norton’s books. That lucky arrangement has resulted in a succession of award-winning television and movie Borrower pieces both here and abroad.

Came the millennium and deFaria, in tandem with Tosh, started what he terms the “20 year adventure of a musical version.” There were staged readings, one at Golden Bough and then another at what is now Paper Wing. A full-scale production was mounted by Saltshaker Theatre at the First Baptist Church, Salinas, in 2007. Rewrites followed and now there’s the new Forest Theater version.

It’s a happy, eventful show and the tunes have a quirky charm that somehow suggests a world that’s small and, yes, lurking around somewhere underground. The evening starts with a wonderful hodgepodge chorus: all sizes, shapes and ages appear from different parts of the theater to let you in on the fact that “There’s a world of little people living underneath our feet.”  The program reveals that this troupe is made up of clans, each named for some piece of useful household equipment or furniture—the Bell Pulls, the Drain Pipes, the Boot Racks. No Rockette precision or uniformity about them. Old, young, tall, short, staid, flexible, stylish or ragtag, they are one of the recurring delights of the piece.

It’s basically about a Borrower family called the Clocks, comprised of an adventurous and optimistic dad named Pod, his amiable but anxious homebody wife Homily and their daughter Arrietty, who balks against a tribal system where it’s only men who go borrowing from people Borrowers call Human Beans, leaving the women to adapt and domesticate whatever stuff their menfolk bring in.

Jared Hussey, by now a talented mainstay of local musical theater, is a quick, humorous and resourceful Pod Clock.  His tenor blends pleasingly with the soprano of Gracie Moore Poletti, who manages to show wife Homily’s struggle to keep home and family together without turning her into a whiner or a worry wart.  As Arietty, Gracie Balistreri is charming, spirited and sings beautifully.

Against Homily’s better judgment Pod agrees to train his daughter in some preliminary borrowing from a pair of cranky upstairs Beans named Mr. and Mrs. Crampfurl. Played for ever-broadening comedy by the delightful Davises, Mitchell and Phyllis, the Crampfurls have just been paid to care for a newly arrived and sickly preteen known only as The Boy (Jack Norman). In the course of Arietty’s borrow training, she breaches another tribal law: Never Be Seen by any Human Bean. She not only gets seen, she makes friends with The Boy, and that is when all the trouble starts.

Lots of story to deal with—and deFaria’s script and Tosh’s music lay it out quite effectively in Act 1. Act 2 seems to me to drag a bit. With lots of plot complications to develop and then unravel, the script too often bogs down in pleasant but irrelevant side issues.  So, for instance, with little or no advance notice, a collection of Clocks and  extended family members gather and sing that “It’s Christmas,” a fact that doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything that has been happening or anything which then happens after the song had ended.

A new and meaningful element shows up with the arrival of a skittish loner vagabond Borrower named Spiller, played with a lot of dash and vigor by Arick Arzadon. He does some important favors for the Clocks, and he strikes Arietty as a possible answer to her prayers for a real life storybook Prince Charming if he’d just stop disappearing without warning. But their teen romance gets sidetracked in issues like a musical number where Arietty and her visiting cousin Eggletina decide to “Light a Little Candle,” which is appealingly sung but slows down the main story.

The Forest Theater set is appropriately built on two levels. The upper tier is a standard Bean-sized parlor, the lower a joyous jumble of Borrower furniture pieces like a matchbox table and chairs made from giant spools of thread backed with neat rows of matchsticks. It’s fun to compare the differing sizes of objects like clocks and scissors and thimbles in the two worlds of tiny Borrowers and gigantic Beans so long as those two worlds don’t merge. When the plot finally directs that they do, there are some awkwardly unconvincing dimensions in pieces of Nicole Bryant-Stephens’ design. Arietty faces two big Human Bean flowerpots, for instance, which are approximately the same size as a big Human Bean grandfather clock.

As it stands, The Borrowers is an agreeable evening’s entertainment. With some wise and adroit cutting, it could be a real winner.

It continues weekends through July 17th.