Ruffles, ribbons and lace; lavish wigs in blue, pink, salmon and orange; feathered hats and fluttery veils: The monarch in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" may have paraded without a stitch, but in South Coast Repertory's production of the classic, the costumes steal the show.
This pleasant early effort by noted musical theater collaborators Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty ("Once on This Island," "Ragtime," "Seussical") marks the launch of SCR's new "Theatre for Young Audiences ... and Their Families" series -- fully staged productions with professional casts.
Directed by John-David Keller, it lightly delivers the earnest message that people should be defined by what's on the inside not the outside, in a tale about a bookish, uncertain 14-year-old emperor named Marcus (Nathanael Johnson) who decides that wearing the right clothes will make him manly and wise.
Royal clothes-maker Deena (Carla Jimenez) can't cut it with her dubious sartorial concoctions -- turquoise satin breeches with orange bows, a floaty orange ensemble and a diaphanous cape covered in what looks like Big Bird's cast-off feathers.
Enter wily villain Mr. Maurice (Louis Lotorto), promising to create magic clothes that can't be seen by fools and liars. It's up to teenage "scrub boy" Arno (Eric Newton), to serve as the clear-eyed voice of truth when Marcus bares not quite all (Johnson retains his ruffled pantaloons and striped socks).
Newton, who has performed as an aerialist in Cirque du Soleil and Cirque Eloize shows, does a bit of stilt-walking, balancing and aerial work during the show, a device that could be integrated more dynamically into the mix, as could Ahrens and Flaherty's slight musical numbers.
Donna Marquet's deft purple-and-gold hanger-motif scenic design and Christina L. Munich's lighting complement the action nicely, while an essential visual kick comes courtesy of costume designer Angela Balogh Calin.
All told, the show is quite likable. The disappointment is that it's not exceptional -- and the hope is that SCR, one of the country's leading regional theaters, will grow its new series with the artistic vision that will enable it to make a notable contribution to this underserved field.
'The Emperor's New Clothes'
Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Fridays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 and 4:30 p.m.
Ends: Nov. 16
Info: (714) 708-5555
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes