Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel



Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Lifeline Theatre. Prolific children's-book author Virginia Lee Burton grappled with her own fear of technology by personifying machines. In her stories, full of rich, timeless messages about friendship and overcoming adversity, faithful cable cars and tenacious snowplows triumph through heart and a bit of axle grease. Her most soulful work is the 1939 Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, exploring the symbiotic relationship between a man and his machine--a relationship that's even more resonant in the nuclear age. In the play's introduction, grouchy mayor Henry B. Swap (Owen Yen) says something about "new not always being better," but inspiration comes from unlikely contemporary sources in Eric Lane Barnes's exceedingly clever 1998 musical adaptation.

Director Shole Milos largely retains the vision of the original staging, but he's kept things fresh by peppering the show with some visual gags and one-liners (like an overt nod to Charlie's Angels) designed for the much bigger kids in the audience. Keith Eric Davis brings ample charm and a hint of impishness to Mike Mulligan while Nancy Jane Nelson plays Mary Anne the Steam Shovel as the sensible, motherly voice of reason. Costume designer Sarah Pitt complements the set's eye-popping visuals with some fanciful outfits, including one based on the principle of a condiment squeeze bottle. Together the show's elements suggest a daydream world that nevertheless refuses to deliver easy answers.

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