After a sold-out premiere at the Children's Theatre in spring 2016, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical" had its sights set on Broadway. It was backed by Kevin McCollum, producer of such hits as "Rent," "In the Heights" and "Six," and a former president and CEO of the Ordway Center.
But in May 2018, Rachel Rockwell, the inventive director who had staged the musical like a piece of electrified cinema, died of ovarian cancer. Her passing was a tragedy for her family and the show.
"We had a tremendous loss with Rachel," McCollum said. "We needed time away from it to figure out the next steps."
After being knocked back by death and then delayed by the pandemic, "Wimpy Kid" is on its feet again. It's guided by New York director Jenn Thompson, an industry veteran who was a child actor in the original Broadway production of "Annie."
Based on Jeff Kinney's bestselling children's books and his 20th Century Fox films, "Wimpy Kid" orbits height-challenged middle-schooler Greg Heffley as he tries to find his place in the world. Greg deals with bullying, friendship and issues around fitting in, in a fast-paced milieu designed by Scott Davis and lit by Philip S. Rosenberg ("Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Pretty Woman").
Little people, big impression
Many of the young actors aged out of their parts. Huxley Westemeier, who played Greg's little brother, Manny, has stepped into the title role. Westemeier, who also acted in the Guthrie Theater's "Watch on the Rhine" and the national tour of "School of Rock," alternates Greg with Patrick Scott McDermott.
"Wimpy" has 17 child actors and three adult ones. The youngsters, who hail from the Twin Cities, Chicago and elsewhere, have impressed their adult colleagues.
"They are working long hours and managing school at the same time," Thompson said. "They bring such energy and hope, it's impossible not to respond in kind."
Besides Thompson, whose upcoming projects include staging the national tour of "Annie," the new personnel on the creative team include "Motown" choreographer Patricia Wilcox and Amanda Morton, a Goodspeed Opera alum who is taking over music supervision from Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler, the show's composers and lyricists. Kevin Del Aguila, who also wrote "Altar Boyz," has returned as the show's playwright with new songs and scenes.
'Feels like a rebirth'
"Wimpy Kid" has been revised in key places. The first act, for example, ended with Halloween. Now things get tied up with a talent show.
"It's a big moment where the characters are all onstage and it plants a big question in the mind of the audience — are Greg and Rowley going to stick together or not," Kinney said, adding that he's grateful.
"When we left Minneapolis, I thought that would be the end of that chapter for the musical," Kinney said. "This chance that we have to take another crack at it feels like a rebirth."
"Wimpy Kid" is about cartoon-like figures come to life. For the creative team, the retooling means fleshing out the characters as much as possible, including Greg's father, who now has his own song. (Don't worry about the show becoming padded; a musical number was also cut.)
But "the things that people loved are all there," Children's Theatre artistic director Peter Brosius said. "They've made it smarter, sharper, funnier and more touching."
For Kinney, who has written several "Wimpy" titles since 2016 and been working on adapting his own books for Disney Plus, the first successful theatrical adaptation of his work was an eye-opener. The musical added dimensions and elements to his stories that he never imagined.
"In my books, I don't strive to make you feel anything as a reader — the only thing I'm doing is going for laughs," Kinney said. "The core function of the book is humor. But [the creative team] infuses so much emotion and joy into it."
That's music to McCollum's ears. For him, "Wimpy" is not just another promising title in his stable. Rockwell's spirit hovers over the production.
"Coming out of the pandemic, everybody should be able to relate to Greg, who is trying to find his place in the world," McCollum said. "But for me, this show is also very healing."
'Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical'
Who: Composition and lyrics by Alan Schmuckler and Michael Mahler. Book by Kevin Del Aguila. Directed by Jenn Thompson.
When: 7 p.m. Thu.-Fri., 1 & 5 p.m. Sat. & Sun. Ends June 18.
Where: CTC, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks for all patrons 12 1⁄2 or older.
Tickets: $15-$78, 612-874-0400 or childrenstheatre.org.