‘Ivy + Bean’: It’s musical mayhem

Oregon Children's Theatre stages a winner – and gets caught in Tom Coburn's cynical political machine

Ivy and Bean are a phenomenon, although from my scanning of Ivy + Bean and the Ghost That Had To Go, Book 2 in the wildly popular series of chapter-books-with-lots-of-pictures, author Annie Burrows wouldn’t use a word like “phenomenon” for her young readers. She would, and does, use vivid words like “boogers,” “breezeway,” “squinted,” “Plesiosaur,” “potion,” “burial,” “immature,” “gurgling,” and “cartwheels,” and even “emergency” and “uncomfortably,” so come to think of it, maybe “phenomenon” wouldn’t be out of place, after all: when it comes to playing with the language, Ivy and Bean are no stick-in-the-mud Dick and Janes.

I’m not about to make the case that the Ivy + Bean books are great kids’ lit. Book 2, at least – the only one of the 10-and-counting that I’ve read – has little of the depth and richness of, say, The Wind in the Willows, or Anne of Green Gables, or even the lightly satirical Freddy the Pig books. It seems more like a slyly updated version of such comic serial capers as Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, with an anarchic children’s world-view shaped gently by a sympathetic adult mind. Just the sort of thing, in other words, to get impressionable kids keen on reading.

Madison Wray as Ivy and Haley Ward as Bean: suddenly, best friends. Photo: Owen Caret

Madison Wray as Ivy and Haley Ward as Bean: suddenly, best friends. Photo: Owen Carey

Or, in the case of Oregon Children’s Theatre’s bright and sassy new production Ivy + Bean: The Musical, keen on watching and listening. Perusing Barrows’ book, with its quick and irreverent drawings by Sophie Blackall, didn’t prepare me for the bright and clattering pleasure this thing could be onstage. Sparked by refreshingly irascible performances by teenage actors Haley Ward as the bumptious tomboy Bean and Madison Wray as the sweetly subversive Ivy, I+B: The Musical is about as much fun as a blood oath signed in spit. And if you don’t think that sounds fun, just try to recall your 8-year-old self.

Scott Elmegreen’s hour-long musical adaptation is based on the first book in the series, the Ur-story, the foundation myth: Bean’s the queen of a cul-de-sac called Pancake Court, Ivy’s the new kid in the neighborhood, and they both know they don’t like each other, until circumstances transpire. The main circumstance, in this case, is Bean’s bossy 11-year-old sister, Nancy, who as played by Stephanie Roessler is a comically conniving meanie with a wicked witch’s cackle. Magical spells ensue, along with buckets of worms, soccer games, earnest but futile attempts to enter the book of world records, and other evidences of the vast and earnest and abruptly changeable universe of the childhood imagination. The creators of Ivy + Bean know one thing, and know it true: in childhood, play is where the most important learning happens.

Young actors David VanDyke, Jonathan Pen, and Sophie Keller capably round out the neighborhood gang, and Bean’s parents are played by Alex Leigh Ramirez and Joey Côté as reassuringly out-of-the-loop presences who are also, in that odd world of childhood independence, reliably there. And as usual at OCT, where I+B continues through November 23 in the Newmark Theatre, production values are crisp. Director Isaac Lamb, musical director Mont Chris Hubbard, choreographer Amy Beth Frankel, costumer Ashton Hull, scenic designer Kristeen Willis Crosser, lighting designer Phil McBeth, sound designer Scott Thirson, and props master Kaye Blankenship make up a thoroughly professional and technically precise team: young audiences here are enjoying the benefits of a fully fleshed and tightly timed production. I would go to this eagerly oddball, breezily funny show even if I didn’t have a kid in tow. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I did.

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Opening Ivy + Bean: The Musical was the big deal at Oregon Children’s Theatre last week, but other excitement was bouncing around the playhouse walls, too: Last season’s terrific production of Zombie in Love, which was funded partly by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, gained prominent mention in Wastebook 2014, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma)’s annual excoriation of what he deems the year’s “most outlandish government spending.”

“OCT wears as a badge of honor that the $10,000 we were granted by the NEA for the development of Zombie in Love made the list,” OCT’s managing director, Ross McKeen, said, just slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Coburn isn’t a stupid man – quite the contrary – but he’s an innately political beast, and his annual lists are calculated to feed the frenzy of his reactionary base. Congress needs budget-minders as anchors and guardians of practicality. But Coburn’s annual list is well-known for its laziness and cynicism. There is utterly no doubt that the federal budget contains wasteful line items. Coburn’s list invariably lacks the honesty to ferret the bad ones out. Instead it goes for the cheap and easy, the red meat that makes the partisan dogs roar. It routinely takes things out of context, ignoring, for instance, all of the public advantage to be found in a well-run children’s theater program so it can poke a zombie in the eye. And it works: A video clip from Zombie was featured prominently in a segment on CBS This Morning that reported, with not an ounce of skepticism or basic J-school cross-checking, Coburn’s “findings.” It was one more tiny little nail in the increasingly malodorous coffin of mainstream American journalism.

McKeen continues: “Like a schoolyard bully, Coburn goes after the art geeks and science nerds in a report that is profoundly anti-science, anti-culture, and anti-intellect. The programs he cites are presented without context or any effort to understand their broader public policy goals. Are scientists really studying the effect of Swedish massage on rabbits because they like rabbits and are silly people? Or might they be trying to determine if massage is an effective (and less costly) alternative to painkillers and surgery in an effort to reduce health care costs? Coburn and his ilk don’t care.”

Dear readers, I don’t want to get all political on your heads. Honest people can honestly disagree. Honesty, unfortunately, is the vital element lacking in Coburn’s reports. If you tell me you don’t believe it’s the government’s role to spend money on arts and cultural matters, I will disagree with you but respect your opinion and understand your point of view. That isn’t what Coburn does. He stacks the deck and plays to the crowd. And he’s lazy about it: He doesn’t bother to check his facts, because he knows the facts are highly likely to undermine his case. How many hours of Coburn’s staff’s time go into the making of this annual charade? Why does that wasted money never make his list?

On Saturday afternoon, when I went to see Ivy + Bean, I ran into Stan Foote, OCT’s artistic director, who told me that Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) had jumped on the bandwagon and tweeted something snarky about Zombie in Love. I was sorry to hear that, because at one point I had thought McCain was at the least an honest man. That, of course, was before the profound silliness of l’affaire Palin.

It’s one thing for Ivy and Bean to let their imaginations run amok. But they’re 8 years old, for crying out loud. Isn’t it well past time for Coburn and McCain and pals to just, well, grow up?

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Bravo Bob. Gone are the days, I fear, when the press was in the business of at least trying to keep politicians honest. Thanks for this, and interesting review of Ivy + Bean, also mention of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series and Anne of Green Gables, very different, very good books.

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