When people from Orange County go to Montana, they find rugged, majestic scenery and some fine trout fishing. When Jan Garde and Dan Sip came from Montana to Orange County, they found rats.
Actually, Garde and Sip, actor-directors with the Missoula Children's Theatre, came here looking for rats, lots of rats, and for some oafish city council members, a couple dozen town folk and one dancing, flute-playing gadabout with a keen sense of justice.
They found them all on Monday at Orange Coast College, where about 60 locals aged 6 to 14 turned out to audition for the MCT's production of "The Pied Piper." Garde and Sip, who were marking their company's 10th annual visit to Costa Mesa, selected their cast and then launched into a series of intensive after-school rehearsals; "The Pied Piper," an hourlong musical version of Robert Browning's original lyric poem, adapted by MCT founder Jim Caron, will be performed twice Saturday at OCC's Robert B. Moore Theatre.
Caron says his adaptation is intended to "stay true to the message of the story, which essentially has to do with paying your debts. But we also bring in a little more hope; there's an underlying message of forgiveness and redemption."
Overrun by rats, the town of Hamelin is rescued by a itinerate piper whose music lures the critters away. But when the mayor refuses to pay him, the piper lures the children out of town as well.
The poem ends on a bleak note, but the children (and the rats) in the MCT's version are returned safely and everybody lives in harmony forever more. Original pop style music is sprinkled throughout the production along with several dance numbers, including a poignant duet by child Sara (played by Garde) and the piper, a non-speaking role to be played here by Kara Inglish, 14, of Irvine.
Having trained at the MCT's home theater, Garde (a Fordham grad who has studied voice at Juilliard) and Sip (who has a degree in music education from South Dakota State and who has played Handel at Carnegie Hall) are on the first leg of a nine-month tour that will take them from Costa Mesa through Nevada, Arizona, Idaho and Washington.
(The Southern California dates, which also include shows in El Centro, Indio, La Jolla, La Quinta and Palm Desert, are being sponsored by the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation).
Garde and Sip are one of 19 two-person teams from the MCT touring this year, rolling from town to town in mini-trucks packed to the gills with costumes, props and sound and lighting systems. The full list of stops runs the gamut from metropolitan areas to towns so small that the MCT may be the only live theater that residents will see all year. Nearly 40,000 children will have an opportunity to perform in an MCT show, and nearly 500,000 people in the United States and abroad will see one, by the tour's end.
Attempting to mount a full production with less than 20 hours rehearsal may sound like a recipe for disaster, but MCT production coordinator Valerie Lyons, who toured as a team member from 1992 through last summer, says "When we leave town, people always say two things: 'I can't believe you can do all this in five days,' and 'How do you ever get all that stuff into the back of that truck?' "
The answer to the latter: Lots of practice, says Lyons. As for the former, the answer is, again: practice, combined with the unique energy that children bring to the experience.
"The kids in the casts seem to pick up on the sense of urgency, and they really stay focused," Lyons notes. "It's rare that a child forgets a line, but if it happens, usually the rest of the cast is working so well as an ensemble that the audience would never catch it."
When the curtain falls and an MCT team rolls onto its next stop, the children who have participated are left with more than memories and show bills, Lyons adds.
"It's amazing to go into a town and see the kid who's a little hesitant and scared in the audition but by the end of the week is walking around like he's on a cloud. He has a stronger self-image because he has learned how to take on a challenge."
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* What: "The Pied Piper" by the Missoula Children's Theatre.
* When: Saturday 7 at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m.
* Where: The Robert B. Moore Theatre, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa.
* Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Fairview Road and drive west. Turn right into the campus at Arlington Drive.
* Wherewithal: In advance, $8 for adults, $7 for senior citizens and $6 for ages 12 and under. At the door, $10 for adults, $7 for children. Parking is free.
* Where to call: (714) 432-5880.