A Reality Check, From Thomas the Train

SpongeBob, Patrick Starfish, Times Square

This weekend, we took the kids to see a Thomas the Train live stage show. “Daddy?” Bennett asked me on the way there. “Will Thomas be real?”

“No,” I said.

Drew practically swerved off the road. “What?!”

“He’ll be a character,” I explained, “like when we saw SpongeBob in Times Square.”

“Yes, Bennett,” Drew emphatically corrected me. “Thomas will be real!”

It was like I’d blown the whole Santa thing or something. I mean yes, Thomas is real in our hearts, kid, but you’ve been on “real” trains. Are they rendered with pen and ink? Do they have expressive faces and buddies like George Carlin? I didn’t want to set the boy up for disappointment. The Times Square SpongeBob spoke with a thick Mexican accent and practically grabbed his tip right out of my pocket after we snapped his picture. Instead of a pineapple under the sea, he smelled like he lived in a box under the Queensboro Bridge. I wasn’t expecting much more from this show.

Thomas & Friends Live, Thomas & Friends stage, Thomas the Tank Engine, Thomas the TrainWe filed into a theater with the barest of backdrops on stage. It was basically a green door and the Thomas logo. Even next to Times Square SpongeBob, this seemed bush league. Bennett was silent as he waited for the show to start. And waited. And waited.

This is a kid who gets antsy waiting for me to spread peanut butter on a mini bagel. He just stared at the stage for half an hour, barely making a peep.

“When Thomas comes out,” Bennett announced at one point, “I’m going to dance with him.”

thomasaudienceEventually, a woman with a microphone took the stage and told us that after the show we’d have an opportunity to get our picture taken with Thomas. I thought Bennett might explode. “When it’s your turn, please move quickly across the stage,” she implored us. “Also, Thomas asked that you not touch his face.”

Then, another two-legged, zero-engined character took the stage. He introduced himself as Driver Sam, and he wore an engineer’s overalls and hat. This is where having gay dads colors your perspective on things, because other parents probably thought Sam was just a delightful, enthusiastic young man belting out the Thomas theme song. As for my partner and me, our gaydars started to overheat. His go-go boy good looks and overinflated biceps could not go unacknowledged. We quietly whispered jokes about Driver Sam checking his Grindr backstage.

Driver Sam instructed the crowd to sing along with him, and we did… for maybe the first 3 times he ran through the theme song. Then he did it about 8 more times, repeating the same lame choreography over and over. “One more time!” he shouted, long after he’d lost us all. That’s when it became clear. Driver Sam’s job was to fill time.

Enough, Driver Sam! Bring on the Beatles!

Driver Sam coached us on how to properly greet Thomas when he arrived (i.e., give a big wave and shout, ” Helloooooooo, Thomas!”). We practiced it about 14 times.

Thomas the Train, Thomas the Tank Engine, Thomas Live ShowThen, finally, the green doors we’d been staring at for the last 45 minutes opened. Behind the scenes, a couple of stagehands gave a push, and Thomas’ familiar face poked out about two and a half feet from Tidmouth Sheds, then came to a stop. Thomas was as tall as Driver Sam, yet despite his cartoonish appearance, he was far, far less animated than his human co-star.

I realized this was all the Thomas we’d be getting. He wouldn’t be venturing into the audience or moving across the stage. He wouldn’t be joined by any of his train friends, and he sure wouldn’t be dancing with my son.

“Helloooooooo, Thomas!” we all cheered, dutifully. I glanced over at Bennett, to see if he was as unimpressed as I was. Instead, he looked like he’d just seen Elvis.

“He’s real!” Bennett shouted. He turned to me and said it again. “Daddy, he’s real!”

At that moment, I simultaneously felt like the world’s biggest jerk and the luckiest man alive. I knew instantly that I’d be reliving that experience, that pure, perfect little chirp of “He’s real!” over and over for the rest of my life. I’ve replayed it in my head about a thousand times in just the last two days.

I’d forgotten that at my son’s age, your ability to buy into fantasy is incredibly high, while your taste in live theater is incredibly low. This was the most thrilling moment of his young life, and that made it one of mine, too, because the way Bennett feels about Thomas is the way I feel about Bennett.

Sometimes I can’t believe he’s real myself.