Too often these days musical theater is sold on spectacle (helicopters, swimming pools, falling chandeliers) or on fading celebrity power (witness Cheryl Ladd currently groaning through Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway). But the star in Lifeline’s musical adaptation of Munro Leaf’s 1936 children’s classic, The Story of Ferdinand, is first-rate writing. Adapted with exuberant efficiency by James Sie and scored with impressive ingenuity by Douglas Wood, this fable of the bull that would rather smell pretty flowers than fight a matador comes vibrantly to life in 45 giddy minutes. Mixing Leaf’s tender sentimentalism with generous dashes of Tex Avery irreverence–in the opening number a trio of bulls sings three-part backup moos–Sie and Wood give just about every musical writer in town a lesson in iconic simplicity, filling their naive images with such subtle emotions it’s hard to avoid a lump in the throat every time Ferdinand serenades his beloved flowers. Some of the supporting cast can’t manage the nuance that would do the show justice, but as Ferdinand, Barry Cohen underplays his role to endearing effect. Yet only Nancy Jane Nelson achieves a greatness commensurate with the script. Her warm soprano does anything she asks of it, and she possesses an admirably mature comic flair. This show may be a four-year-old hit hauled out of storage for an extended revival through the holidays, but it comes out smelling like a rose. Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood, 773-761-4477. Through December 10: Saturdays, 1 and 3 PM; Sundays, 1 PM. Then December 27 through 31: Wednesday-Saturday, 1 and 3 PM; Sunday, 1 PM. Then January 6 and 7: Saturday, 1 and 3 PM; Sunday, 1 PM. $7.

–Justin Hayford

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.