CHILDREN'S THEATER REVIEW : 'Riding Hood' Stars Endearing Wolf

Now here's a fellow you would love to have at your next party. He's a laugh a minute, has a way with the ladies and is one natty dresser. Now, if he would only quit drooling over the guests.

In its current production of "Little Red Riding Hood," the American Children's Theatre of Anaheim gives us one of the most likable Big Bad Wolves ever to step out of a fairy tale. The William Kilborne/Albert Viola adaptation continues at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center through Nov. 4.

Dan Halkyard directs the show and appears as the wolf. Working with an already campy script, Halkyard plays this "Red" for laughs from the first scene. It's part melodrama, part vaudeville shtick, and, for the most part, it works.

Halkyard's wolf is a ravenous, fast-talking con man with a weakness for two-legged treats. Or, as he explains in his opening song, "For little children, I'm the perfect host / I like little children . . . on whole wheat toast."

Fortunately, that's about as gruesome as it gets. Compared to the original tale--in which the villainous fur ball gobbles up granny, Red and just about anything else in his path--this wolf is a relative pussycat. He spends more time cozying up to audience members and moaning about his lousy press than he does pursuing his next meal.

Halkyard is easily the most polished of the five-member cast. At a performance Saturday, he ignored the auditorium's uncomfortably high temperatures and delivered a consistently high-energy performance. He made liberal use of the show's in-the-round setting, eliciting giggles, comments--and, in the case of one startled 3-year-old, tears--during his forays into the audience. As the grandmother, 16-year-old Susanna Johnson matches Halkyard's enthusiasm. Decked out in hi-top tennies and an extravagantly padded bosom, Johnson's granny is a gravel-voiced, no-baloney kind of gal. Her Keystone Cops-style scene with Halkyard at the end of the play is one of the show's high points.

Next to these two, 13-year-old April Litvinov and adults Cassandra Beckerman and Bob Johnson have a hard time keeping up. As Little Red, the petite Litvinov doesn't seem plucky enough to shortcut through the forest and risk a confrontation with the wolf, but her singing voice is sure and strong, and lends itself well to a sweet duet with her mother at the opening of the show. As mother and the love-sick woodsman, Beckerman and Johnson (Susanna's real-life dad) reach for, but don't quite attain, the larger-than-life characterizations of melodrama.

Laurie Holden's costumes are simple but effective, especially the wolf's sporty pegged pants and fluorescent necktie worn over head-to-toe fake fur. Halkyard's sets and lighting were equally serviceable. Bill Graber's piano accompaniment adds welcome punch to the musical numbers.

One last tip: If you're planning to see "Little Red Riding Hood" on a hot day, dress in cool clothing and bring a fan. The auditorium is not air-conditioned and can become very warm.

"Little Red Riding Hood" begins the 1990-91 season of the American Children's Theatre of Anaheim. Founded in 1987 by Herman Boodman and the late Philo Hatch, the nonprofit troupe has presented more than 300 performances of classic children's plays to date. Each show in the five-play season runs 10 weekends in order to reach as many young theatergoers as possible, said Boodman, who serves as the troupe's managing director. Halkyard, who heads his own North County youth groups--Center Stage Productions and Broadway on Tour--was recently named the troupe's resident director, and will stage three of this year's shows. This season continues through next August with "Goldilocks and the Christmas Bears," "Brementown Musicians" and Halkyard's musical adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland," and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

'LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD'

An American Children's Theatre of Anaheim production of the William Kilborne/Albert Viola play. Directed by Dan Halkyard. Runs one hour, no intermission. With Cassandra Beckerman, Dan Halkyard, Bob Johnson, Susanna Johnson and April Litvinov. Costumes by Laurie Holden. Sets and lighting by Dan Halkyard. Choreography by Cassandra Beckerman. Performances are Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 4 at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center, 931 N. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim. Tickets: $5. Information: (714) 491-7144.

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