Kids like things predictable. One preschooler I know demands daily doses of “Mary Poppins” and isn’t satisfied until he’s sung and danced through at least three back-to-back screenings. An older child, meanwhile, can spend hours on the phone in negotiations worthy of a diplomat just to coordinate outfits for the next school day (“OK, I’ll wear my black pants too, but we have to wear our plaid shirts on Monday”).
So it’s not surprising that a children’s theater group, especially one with an eye on the bottom line (and which one hasn’t?), should adopt the same mentality. After all, they reason, why risk ticket sales on an unknown title or an unconventional staging if you can scrape by with the same shopworn favorites year after year?
Obviously, the answer is that kids, like adults, can benefit greatly from a break in routine, and a children’s theater company that rattles our cage once in a while, whether that means offering a lesser-known play or revitalizing an old standard, deserves our thanks.
Listed in chronological order below are some of the shows I saw in 1993 that did just that.
“My Mom’s Dad,” (South Coast Repertory’s 1993 Educational Touring show). The wisdom of the ancients and the concerns of a preteen girl saddled with a quirky grandfather were smoothly blended in this original musical by Fullerton playwright Richard Hellesen, with music by Michael Silversher. The underlying message--that valuable lessons can be learned from those who differ from us in their age or culture--was presented elegantly and with only the rarest lapse into sentimentality.
“Godspell,” (La Habra Depot Playhouse Youth Ensemble, La Habra, February). Director Elisabeth Graham’s hand was virtually unseen by audiences in this outstanding production, which says a lot for her. The high school- and college-age cast members, many with considerable talent, moved through this inspirational Stephen Schwartz musical smoothly and naturally. The result: an obviously well-rehearsed show that came off more like a great party of friends, with audience members welcome guests in the revelry.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” (South Coast Repertory’s Young Conservatory Players, Costa Mesa, March and April). Bing and Bob “Road” movies provided the inspiration for this musical redux of the classic fairy tale, from the emperor’s polka-dot boxers to the charlatan’s supremely seedy camel suit. The educational value was nil, but the campy wrap gave young audiences a glimpse into the glory days of movie musicals and the junior high and high school-age cast an outlet for some well-oiled, physical humor.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” (Orange County Children’s Theatre, Westminster, April and May). OCCT has never been shy about tweaking convention, which is commendable, but sometimes their writers’ and directors’ attempts are so heavy-handed, the shows end up more confusing than quirky. Not so here. Aside from a few ill-advised dance sequences, director Larry Blake took the opposite tack, simplifying the Roald Dahl story’s fantastic circumstances and placing more emphasis on the central characters, lead by Daryn Mack’s wondrously spacey Willy Wonka.
“The Geek,” (GroveShakespeare, Garden Grove, May). In addition to the Bard, lesser known, local playwrights were showcased by the now-defunct GroveShakespeare in their undersung family series. Some shows were forgettable; others, especially this one, were worth noting. Through a series of catchy song-and-dance numbers, playwright Karen Schmitt painted a funny, sometimes painfully accurate picture of life on the outside of the school-yard social circle.
“Jack and the Beanstalk,” (Broadway on Tour, Orange, June-August). The five-year-old BOT christened its new, permanent facility at The City shopping center in Orange with a bright and frothy musical that wrapped the familiar tale in a commedia dell’arte style. The mostly junior-high-school-age cast used humor and audience participation to share an age-appropriate message. To wit: Even little guys can win if they have a can-do spirit (and maybe some magic beans).
“Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” (Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater, Moulton Theatre, Laguna Beach, June). Author Judy Blume’s on-the-money portrayal of brotherly Angst, adapted to the stage by Bruce Mason, was played large and lively in this staging, which featured a mixed cast of children and adults. In a bid to involve parents, director Joe Lauderdale threw in some clever but sometimes tiresome vaudevillian touches. Given the universal appeal of the story (who, in a family audience, hasn’t had to deal with a 2-year-old despot?), they didn’t get in the way of a good time.
“Story Theatre,” (Newport Theatre Arts Center, Newport Beach, July and August). “The Robber Bridegroom,” “Henny Penny” and “The Fisherman and his Wife” are but a few of the classic tales retold in this Broadway show. NTAC’s staging was sparse but effective, and, although billed as family fare, it included some dark themes and slightly off-color gags better suited to adults. Ian Downs’ gamboling dance to “Achy Breaky Heart” was worth the price of admission.
“Twin Desperadoes,” (Theatrefaire for Children, Irvine Barclay Theatre, August). Borrowing a little from Shakespeare and a bunch from old radio Westerns, this Theatrefaire commission was a rootin’, tootin’ good time for folks who get their kicks from slapstick and melodrama. Co-author Greg Atkins led an all-ages cast that chewed up Wally Huntoon’s comic book-style scenery, although the cavernous space of the Irvine Barclay prevented audiences from being close enough to the action.
“Tales from the Brothers Grimm,” (Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater, September). By their applause, audiences chose which of two Grimm tales they wanted to see; when I attended, “The Frog Prince” beat “Rapunzel” by a wide margin. The morality tale of a pig-headed princess who learns that beauty can lie within the ugliest package was played out in a commedia dell’arte style that featured broad physical comedy and a few wicked throwaway lines for the oldsters.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” (Stagelight Family Productions, Brea, October and November). Custom-made for the witching season, this musical spoof about a wimpy, misguided florist assistant and a man-eating plant with an attitude was perfect for teens and older, but too intense for younger children weaned on more recent Howard Ashman/Alan Menken fare such as Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Technical gaffes and some odd choices by the director and costumer only occasionally tripped up a mostly sterling cast, lead by Justin Gerhl as Seymour.
“Oliver!” (Laguna Playhouse, Moulton Theatre, Laguna Beach, November and December). Consider yourself well in if you were able to catch this show. Presented by a mixed-age cast, it opened just days after the Laguna firestorm, and its upbeat message, top-flight performances and visuals and overall good cheer were a welcome contrast to the ravagement outside the theater. Gabriel Kalomas’ Oliver, Kathi M. Gillmore’s Nancy and Tim Dey’s Fagin were especially fine.