‘Stories’: Playtime for Kids : Celebrity Couples Give ‘Love Letters’ Treatment to Fairy Tales in Pasadena Series
Howie Mandel and Annie Potts did it first. John Glover and Brooke Adams just did it. Next week, Cindy Williams and Meshack Taylor are going to do it. . . .
In “Stories, Stories & More Stories,” a fairy-tale theater series for children at the Pasadena Playhouse, celebrities are pairing up each week to perform staged readings of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Thumbelina.”
Scripts in hand, the actors stand or sit on stage, moving about a lot or a little, as the mood strikes, shaping and coloring the stories with their own individual approach. A giant candlestick and huge storybooks make up the set; there are special sound and light effects and a mime juggler is host.
Presented by the Los Angeles Children’s Theatre, it’s sort of a “Love Letters” for kids. That hit play about a long-term relationship starred a different celebrity couple on the same weekly basis.
Of course, their audiences probably didn’t whimper, laugh, kick the seat in front of them, stand up and contribute audible asides: “I’m tired,” “What’s going to happen?,” “Why did he do that?,” “Is she really singing?”
But Mandel and Potts, who opened the series last week, said they had a great time.
“I’d love to do it again,” Mandel said. “Kids are the purest of critics. If they respond, God, you’ve done your job.
“What I’ve found successful in my TV show, ‘Bobby’s World’ (Mandel does voices and plays himself in the animated Saturday morning Fox program), is that we do not write down to children. So on stage, I did voices that would make me laugh if I heard them.
“Maybe I’ve never played in a room where so many in the audience were on my level,” he joked.
Mandel could hear his 2-year-old son in the audience. “He was screaming, ‘Dad! Dad!’ ” Mandel said. “He was angry because I wasn’t answering him during the performance. Apparently he had something very pressing on his mind.”
Potts, an expectant mom with a 10-year-old son, said she’s “glad to be a party” to enabling children “to hear the written word.”
“It was a little disturbing at first,” the “Designing Women” star said, “because they’re talking through the whole thing. But then you realize they’re talking about the play--what’s he doing now, what’s going to happen?
“I started out in children’s theater when I was 12,” she said. “So I have a great affection for it and I honor that tradition. I’d love to do it again. I think it makes a much deeper impression on children than anything on film or TV could.”
Glover, who, like Mandel, had the audience laughing at his portrayals of a pop-eyed toad and an arrogant mole, and who got them to shout, “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum” with him, said he “grew up doing children’s theater.”
“My first job in New York in the mid-'60s was playing Huckleberry Finn in ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ touring elementary schools.”
He said that he and Brooke Adams had some idea what to expect after “sitting in the audience” while Mandel and Potts performed. “We saw the excitement as children talked to their parents,” he said. “They were enchanted.”
Glover, who starts rehearsals this week in Alan Ayckbourne’s “Henceforward” at the Mark Taper Forum, is concerned that reading “could very well be a dying art” and hopes that the show might inspire children “to go home and want to be read to and want to read, instead of flicking on the set.”
Adams is also about to begin rehearsals--for the national company of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers.” An alumna of her father’s East Coast children’s theater--"I started acting when I was six"--she thinks theater “is vital for children’s imaginations. It’s dying a kind of death in the adult world. If we can keep it alive for children, maybe we can keep it alive for adults.”
And what do young theatergoers have to say?
Six-year-old Allen Randell “thought it would be a movie,” but “I liked it.” His favorite part was the giant’s “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum.”
“I expected it to be like the book I have,” said Cassie Read, 7. But “I liked it when that guy went in the box and when the other two people went inside the book, because they really looked like statues.”
Felipe Moscoso, 10, was excited to recognize Glover from “Gremlins II,” and liked “when the giant was coming to get Jack.” Amelia Berry, 7, did too. “I liked the part when lightening flashed and the ogre came.”
Chad Jefferson, 6, was disappointed that it wasn’t acted out, the way “characters play in the movies and stuff.” So was Hilary Parkin, 5, but she added that she liked what she saw.
“This is a tough audience,” said veteran stage director Tony Abatemarco, for whom children’s theater is a rare experience. “When things are not working for the kids, they’re vocal about it, they shift around. I heard one little kid say midway through ‘Thumbelina,’ ‘Can we go home now?’ ”
After that, he said, “we learned there are places it could be tightened and we eliminated certain sound cues that slowed things up.”
But beyond the light and sound cues, and “simple gestural stuff,” the actors have a lot of latitude in doing the stories the way they want. The familiar fairy tales have been “rewritten so there is interaction between the two actors,” said Children’s Theatre artistic director Patricia Gaul. “They work off of each other, taking on the characterizations in each piece.”
She’s glad the show is happening “just as the media is doing stories about how children aren’t reading. We feel if children are read to, they can be inspired to pick up a book themselves.”
Mary Kay Place and Michael McKean will perform Oct. 26-27. Shows in the future will star John Ritter, Marilu Henner, Laraine Newman, David Lander, Mark Linn-Baker, Buck Henry, Max Gail and Elmo from “Sesame Street.”