My love of the Euro-cheese fantasy epic The Neverending Story is no secret. So imagine my excitement upon learning that the Orlando Repertory Theatre was opening its family-friendly season with a stage adaptation of Michael Ende's original 1979 novel. The basic beats of the story will be familiar to fans of the 1984 film adaptation: Bullied Bastian (Chris Cannizzaro) gets lost in a forbidden storybook featuring boy warrior Atreyu (Alex Salup), his friend Falkor the luckdragon (Michael Pettey) and their quest to defeat the "Nothing." David S. Craig's script stays closer to the source material (the imperiled imaginationland is called "Fantastica" instead of "Fantasia"), but like the movie it ends at the novel's midpoint.

The Rep's production is sponsored by Universal Orlando, and the fruits of their generosity are evident in the spectacular stagecraft. The high-tech, handmade aesthetic is a signature of scenic and projection designer Vandy Wood and puppet designer Heather Henson. Henson's IBEX Puppetry brought us Panther & Crane, which used a similar "trippy video on giant stretched-spandex screens" motif. Among her creations are a delicately sculpted handheld Fairy Doctor, an enormous talking tortoise head and cleverly simple shadow puppets used to convey theatrically impractical action. Marcy Singhaus' extravagantly imaginative costumes (think Star Wars prequels—meet—furry convention) are the cherry on this eye-candy sundae.

Local notables in the talented cast include Trenell Mooring as a multiheaded spider and Chad Lewis as the werewolf Gmork. The creatures consistently entertain (I adored the marionette gnomes, whose marital bickering recalls Billy Crystal and Carol Kane in The Princess Bride), even if character voices are sometimes plot-stoppingly unintelligible.

Too bad the human characters don't come off as nearly so … human. The young leads suffer from overemphacitis, a tragic condition contracted by children's- theater actors that causes victims to bludgeon syllables like budding Bill Shatners. Atreyu comes off as more pouty-petulant than heroic, and Bastian like a short-bus Harry Potter. The pacing is stilted, with a drawn-out climax stumbling into an abrupt ending; the story seems paradoxically underdeveloped and overlong. Undemanding youngsters and Limahl fanboys may be amused, but newbies to this tale won't likely warm to these crude caricatures.

In his director's note, Gary Cadwallader bemoans that today's children are losing their "creative intelligence" to technological toys, a sentiment I support. Live theater can be a weapon in the war to revive children's imaginations, but only if the visual packaging works in support of solid emotional content. Quality children's theater is like quality children's cinema; it can be enjoyed, not just endured, by adults in the audience and still entrance kids.

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