The lasting appeal of the Stinky Cheese Man

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The cast of the musical “Stinky Cheese Man,” which opens Friday at Steppingstone Theatre in St. Paul

When Richard Hitchler read the children’s book “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” by Jon Scieszka, he knew it had the makings of a great children’s theater production.

It’s that twisted fairytale kind of story that seemed fun and well suited to a musical production. It’s not so different from Into the Woods, but much more comical and upbeat, I think. And the kids all lit up when I mentioned it.

Hitchler says he was particularly drawn to the title:

Stinky anything is funny; the word itself is funny, just like the word “banana.” Just like “Captain Underpants” is funny.

The story is a warped remix of the famous fairytale “The Gingerbread Man.” In this case the wannabe parents take a large wheel of cheese, give it a strip of bacon for a mouth, two olives for eyes, and bake it in the oven until it’s just… ripe.

Hitchler says kids love creating their own warped versions of familiar stories, and so they relate to the adaptation. He got permission from Scieszka to commission a musical version of the story for Steppingstone Theatre, and hired Kent Stephens to write the script and lyrics, and Gary Rue to set it to music.

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An illustration by Lane Smith from the children’s book “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales”

What they created is a more upbeat, lighthearted version of the story. What appeared dark and strange on the page is transformed into highjinx and high spirits on the stage, says Rue.

We put a Gilbert and Sullivan, fast-paced spin on the music. It’s big, slap stick stuff which forces you to plug in and pay attention, because jokes come fast and furious. There are punch lines within punch lines. When I see those punch lines in the script, I write those punch lines into the music as well.

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The Stinky Cheese Man, as illustrated by Lane Smith, and as performed by Ayden McCloskey at Steppingstone Theatre

Steppingstone Theatre is now readying to open its third production of the musical since it commissioned the piece back in 1998. And the production has found legs on stages across the United States over the past decade, including the Dallas Children’s Theater, San Diego Junior Theater, and theaters in Boston, Michigan and Washington State. The Dallas Children’s Theater took the show on a national tour, and even to Shanghai for an international children’s theater festival.

All in all the musical has been staged well over 120 times, and Richard Hitchler says he still gets e-mails inquiring about production rites. Hitchler says one of the joys of producing childrens’ theater is that the audience is constantly changing, so staging the same show five years later is no problem. And while Stinky Cheese Man may seem ridiculously odd, he’s also a character that kids can relate to.

No It’s No Picnic Being Cheese

There’s always someone that you’re bound to displease

But since this is what I’m meant to be

I don’t question why

Some days we all feel like a curd

But life doesn’t have to be so absurd

Just look up at that big chedder wheel

As it rolls across the sky

As part of the opening night celebrations, Gary Rue will don a tuxedo and perform tunes from the play and other SteppingStone productions on the piano. And there will be a variety of “stinky” cheese for the audience to sample.