“The Houdini Box” Gives Kids Glimpse of Magical Theater World

“The Houdini Box” exemplifies Chicago Children’s Theatre’s passion for introducing young patrons to the performing arts.

With its interactive playbills, gorgeous sets and a production melding acting, singing and puppetry, the show is, indeed, a good first taste of live performance.

The world premiere musical, based on the book by children’s author and illustrator Brian Selznick—whose work inspired the Oscar best picture nominee “Hugo”—is lavishly portrayed by director and designer Blair Thomas. His three-stage setup at Chicago’s beautiful Mercury Theater is wonderfully adorned in Selznick illustrations, permitting the characters to literally pop from the book’s pages.

Center stage is dedicated to live action and some nifty illusions while Thomas’ puppets accentuate the story from either side.

The tale of “The Houdini Box” has young magician wannabe Victor meeting his idol, Harry Houdini, at New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1926. Houdini invites the lad to learn his magic, but ultimately only leaves Victor a wooden box he seemingly cannot open. The story ultimately encourages its audience never to abandon their dreams.

Versatile actor Derek Hasenstab as Barker (the narrator), Houdini and (in drag) Victor’s Aunt Harriett is stellar. Alex Weisman as Victor and Sara Sevigny as Mother are believable. If this were a play, the performances would be more than fine.

But as a musical, one without a memorable song in the lot, it’s just okay. Cast members all sing adequately, but listening to the performances of Hannah Kohl’s score and lyrics confirms the distance between good community and professional stages isn’t too far.

In addition to the sets, illustrations and puppets, Elizabeth Wislar’s terrific period costuming and the company’s lovely, creative student playbill and activity book are distinct professional elements. Mark Messing’s band is another.

They go a long way toward a recommendation to take a class or family trek to the Mercury Theater (through March 4) or Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts (March 14-25) to introduce kids to theater. This performance of “The Houdini Box” is a decent first taste of live performance, true to CCT’s mission to whet the appetites of next generation’s theatergoers.

It’s just not quite magical.

“The Houdini Box” plays through March 4 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave., and March 14-25 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 N. Skokie, Blvd., Skokie. The show runs 1 hour and 10 minutes, with no intermission. Information and tickets are available at chicagochildrenstheatre.org.