Since its creation by German writer Michael Ende — who first published it as a novel in 1979 — “The Neverending Story” has undergone neverending reinterpretations. A film, a ballet, an opera, an animated TV series and a video game have all re-told the tale.
There is a charming stage show, too — “The Neverending Story (Atreyu and the Great Quest),” adapted by David S. Craig — and it is running at The Growing Stage, the Children’s Theatre of New Jersey in Netcong through March 26.
The Growing Stage produced “Neverending Story” once before, in 2009. Though many Americans may not be familiar with the story, in the show’s program, Growing Stage founder and executive director Stephen L. Fredericks writes that “The passion for the story in Europe has been equated to our affection for ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ ”
Like “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Neverending Story” has a relatable everykid, Bastian Balthasar Bux (played here by Sam Bloch), at the center of the colorful, wildly imaginative action. He’s a shy, awkward, bullied boy whose mother has died, but he finds escape and inspiration through the world of books.
“Except math books,” he says. “They don’t have any characters.”
This doesn’t please his loving but no-nonsense father (Michael McEntee), who just doesn’t see the point of stories. An encounter with an irascible bookstore owner (Sean Quigley) is unsatisfying, as well. He tells Bastian some tantalizing things about a book he owns, “The Neverending Story,” but refuses to sell it to him.
And so Bastian “borrows” (i.e., steals) the book, and spends most of the rest of the play in his school’s attic, reading it. And as he does, the myth-like story – about the young warrior hero Atreyu, and how he saves his world, Fantastica — is acted out in front of him.
It’s a complex story, and it takes a cast of 17, plus lots of life-sized puppets and props, to bring all the characters (including a werewolf, a turtle, a horse, a spider and a “luck dragon”) to life.
As in “The Wizard of Oz,” there are parallels between this dream-like world and Bastian’s real world. And, eventually, a bridge of sorts is built between the two worlds, and the story and the story-within-a-story become a cohesive whole.
This is a big, rich play, and director Robert Mintz, as well as scenery, mask and puppet designer Perry Arthur Kroeger and costume designer Lori B. Lawrence do a good job of ensuring that the visuals are as intriguing as the story itself. The Growing Stage deserves credit for taking this ambitious project on, and everyone involved plays a part in executing it so smoothly.
“The Neverending Story (Atreyu and the Great Quest)” is at the Growing Stage in Netcong through March 26; visit growingstage.com.