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Sibling rivalry; Top-notch TOY takes audience back to grade school

Being in the fourth grade, I think we can all agree, is no picnic.

There are the endless assignments, the grueling math tests, the dog-eat-dog social order of the schoolyard -- all small, bitter tastes of grown-up responsibilities to come.

Add a cantankerous, attention-stealing younger brother to the mix, and life for the fourth-graders of this world can become downright unbearable. And there you have the simple, eternal premise of Judy Blume's "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," which opened last Friday in the Theatre of Youth's Allendale Theatre in a charming production.

Blume's popular tale, first set down in her 1972 book, follows the travails of young Peter Warren Hatcher (James Robert Steiner), whose fourth-grade life is beset on all sides by the frustrating exploits of his toddling younger brother, known as Fudge. Peter's father (Kurt Guba) and mother (played affably by Loraine O'Donnell in her Theatre of Youth debut) lavish all sorts of attention on Fudge, much to the chagrin of well-behaved Peter, who is always called in to help with his brother's bouts of obstinacy.

Fudge, in this clever stage adaptation, takes the form of a puppet manipulated by the gifted Justin Fiordaliso, the manifold challenges of employing a 3-year-old being all but insurmountable. This works to the play's advantage, especially in a scene involving Fudge and his fellow 3-year-olds, also puppets, which has a very "Sesame Street" note of whimsy to it.

Steiner, a recent Buffalo State College grad, plays the put-upon Peter with a convincing physical vocabulary of sighs and shrugs. His interplay with O'Donnell, though the dialogue is sometimes overstylized, is lively and engaging.

Ken Shaw's set, constructed of outsized Lego blocks and surrounded by hanging circles resembling "Connect Four" game pieces, is wildly creative and deserves top billing itself. This little gem of a show, with its central lesson about overcoming sibling rivalry and the universality of parental love, is recommended for ages 6 and up.



"Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing"    

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)    

WHEN: Through April 3    

WHERE: Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St.    

TICKETS: $19 to $21    

INFO: 884-4400

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