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THEATER REVIEW : THIS ‘ALICE’ IS JUST FOR KIDS’ FUN

It just wouldn’t be Junior Theatre without the very littlest one bouncing around the stage--blue-and-white star-spangled helmet completely covering her eyes, tiny little limbs in purple tights keeping time to the music despite the silver spats falling down over her shoes, threatening disaster at any moment.

She looked like she was having the best time of her just-blossomed life.

The Civic Conservatory of Theatre Arts for Youth, better known as San Diego Junior Theatre, is keeping Balboa Park’s Casa del Prado theater abuzz with an upper-octave kiddie hum these days. Thirty-six young actors and actresses of varying sizes will continue their performances of a musical “Alice in Wonderland” through Sunday.

For those who feel comfortable in an audience of 500 half-size theater patrons, Junior Theatre is quite an experience. And if you have young children, by all means add a little theatrical amusement to your Saturday or Sunday afternoon in the park.

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Whoever wrote this retelling of Alice’s adventures is keeping quiet about it. Not even Lewis Carroll is mentioned on the program. The author of the uninspired song lyrics is also, wisely, unnamed.

Sean Reily, given program credit for musical arrangements, is perhaps the lone musician found in the orchestra pit, surrounded by electronic keyboards that punch out the pop tunes with an occasional futuristic, synthesized swirl.

Director Nels Martin and choreographer Lea Chazin are to be commended for undertaking to guide not only 36 zealous young stars, but also a student crew of 46. The budding technicians and administrators work alongside their adult mentors in the box office, backstage, in the lighting booth, up and down the aisles and, last week, glued to busy sewing machines.

Costumer Lois Wetzel has obviously worked overtime with her crew of eight students and six adults. She’s made the huge cast colorful, from Alice’s blue-and-white frock to the Mad Hatter’s plaid vest, disappointing the dazzle-hungry audience only when it came time for the Flowers’ entrance--a sad lot, indeed, a bit too literally interpreted as more weeds than flowers.

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What of the story? And the performers?

Well. The poor youngsters have been saddled with many mouthfuls of multiple-meaning speeches that seemed to soar right over the young playgoers’ tousled heads. The songs helped keep everyone awake, and gave the neophyte singers and dancers a chance to test their new skills in the fire of live performance. But the musical numbers did little to enhance the story, a difficult one to stage.

Martin has made clever use of video, however. He brings the crew on stage, catching video close-ups of the Red Queen that are multiplied into six television monitors in “TV trees” at either side of the proscenium. The Cheshire Cat does his disappearing act from these same video perches in a wonderful blend of the technology Martin’s youngsters know best and the grandness of the stage.

This “Alice in Wonderland” is supposed to take place in the year 2050. There are just a few clues to this, aside from the TV savvy: a rocked-out Caterpillar appearing at the Sports Arena, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum bantering in Valley Girl-ese before they set off to cruise the mall. But mostly things occur as strangely as usual in Wonderland, that place a child visits once in a lifetime--unless, of course, one knows a writer like Carroll who possesses the magic to let everyone in for another peek.

The magic of this production is its sheer magnitude, abundantly filling the stage with color and sound and developing talent. Some of that talent has reached the point of attracting notice: Betsy Malone as a spunky, tap-dancing White Rabbit and Lou Romano as the whirling Mad Hatter.

A Junior Theatre matinee audience offers its own appeal: a glowing sea of young faces in the midst of discovery.

Now if the adults who manage this program will provide fare a little less ambitious and a tad more accessible for the children on both sides of the footlights, San Diego’s Junior Theatre could really become something special.

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” Adapted from the story by Lewis Carroll. Directed by Nels Martin. Choreography by La Chazin. Music arrangement by Sean Reily. Scenery by N. Dixon Fish. Costumes by Lois Wetzel. Lighting by Bob Eaton. Produced by the Civic Conservatory of Theatre Arts (San Diego Junior Theatre) at the Casa del Prado Theatre, Balboa Park. Performances at 7 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday.

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