"Celebrating differences" has become a prevalent theme in children's message theater in recent years, intended to promote appreciation for ethnic and racial differences and thus encourage respect and tolerance for others.
However, from now until June 2, more than 65,000 schoolchildren will see an engaging theater piece that takes another path to achieve the same end. "Birds of a Feather," a new Educational Touring Production presented by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, will be performed at more than 100 Los Angeles and Orange County elementary schools. It seeks to inspire unity by celebrating similarities, not differences.
Written by playwright Richard Hellesen, with fine-tuned music and lyrics by veteran songwriter-composer Michael Silversher, "Birds of a Feather" explores what happens when discord, in the form of trickster Coyote (Frank Reeves), spoils a peaceful, close-knit community of three feathered friends who happen to be of different species.
After a fourth bird buddy (Reeves in a dual role) mysteriously disappears, Tchir'o (SamRedRunningbear Savage) and Kowata (Crissy Guerrero) believe Coyote's divisive lies about who is responsible, and the pair soon not only view each other with suspicion and fear but, in their new isolation, become easy targets for the hungry, grungy canine.
Sikatsi (Heidi Joyce) sees through Coyote, however, and helps the friends reunite to turn the tables on the trickster.
The message isn't subtle, but the adult cast is appealing, director John-David Keller's staging is smooth and economical, and Hellesen deftly uses comedy and elements from Hopi and Navajo mythology to tell the story (the bird names are Hopi words).
Designer Dwight Richard Odle carries out the Native American theme in eye-catching, winged costumes and in a compact mesa set whose canted platform is rimmed with animal symbols.
With a light Southwestern touch, Silversher musically evokes the birds' joy in flying and their travails: "This is a story the birds still sing, one of regret and remembering." He uses Coyote's earthier songs to complement the humor in Hellesen's dialogue. Reeves' rendition of "Low-Down Predatory Blues," as he skulks in a bushy-tailed, ratty fur coat, is a kick. Sylvia Turner choreographed the cast's pleasing bird and animal movement.
* "Birds of a Feather," South Coast Repertory's Educational Touring Production in Southland schools through June 2. Running time: 50 minutes. Information: (714) 957-2602, Ext. 210. Note: The show will play for general audiences at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on May 4 and 5 as part of the annual "Imagination Celebration."