Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Lifeline Theatre. Adapting a book like this one for the stage is no mean feat. At just over 30 pages (many of them filled with exquisite illustrations), Virginia Lee Burton’s 1939 book about a construction worker and his trusty steam shovel is downright skeletal. Given the advances in technology over the past 60 years, it’s also somewhat dated. However, at the heart of Burton’s book lies an instantly recognizable story of triumph against all odds.
Adapter Eric Lane Barnes has cleverly spun this timeless tale into a Lifeline Theatre musical, complete with a handful of punchy numbers and up-to-date cultural references. With his soft-spoken drawl, Larry Dahlke as Mike Mulligan is a man with great ideals but little means, radiating warmth and aw-shucks sincerity. As Mary Anne, the besieged steam shovel, Mary Kathryn Bessinger gives a calm, understated performance that complements Dahlke’s overgrown child. Colorful, playful designs by Megan Ingalls (set) and Michele Siler (costumes) help infuse the production with a sense of wonder and innocence.
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel will be a tonic for those who view children’s theater as a platform for moral indoctrination. Less jaded than their cynical elders, children can be awfully sophisticated when it comes to appreciating and reveling in theatrical creativity and imagination. Lifeline’s greatest asset is that it refuses to underestimate the intelligence of the audience, even when it’s composed primarily of six-year-olds.