The most common question I hear grownups asking kids after a children’s theater performance is, “What part did you like best?” Sometimes the answer is “All of it,” sometimes it’s a noncommittal shrug, but very often there are one or two special moments that have reached out and grabbed the child’s imagination and stick firmly in memory.
I’ve been going to children’s and “family-friendly” shows this summer—sadly, with no kids in tow. So, for want of an expert’s opinion, here are some of my own stuck-in-memory moments.
In Skippyjon Jones in the Cirque de Olé at NCT Kids!, I liked the ingenious shadow-puppet sequence—a tour of the circus conjured by live actors behind a rear-projection screen, interacting with colorful animated backgrounds. Skippyjon was the second offering from New Century Theatre’s fledgling adjunct, following Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, both of them musical adaptations of beloved kids’ books, featuring Valley native Max Weinberg in the title roles. Both shows, performed by a solid company of young people anchored by a couple of experienced adults, are running in repertory this week (newcenturytheatre.org/nctkids).
I enjoyed the puppetry in the Majestic Children’s Theater production of Pinocchio, too. This time they were life-sized talking marionettes and hand puppets of woodland animals, including, of course, that moralizing cricket. While MCT’s scripts tend to be comparatively dialogue-heavy, this one—an original adaption by Andrew Eaton and Stephen Petit of the Carlo Collodi classic, performed by an engaging teenage cast—found a nice balance between words and action. A musical Hansel and Gretel closes the season next week (majestictheater.com/mct.html).
What I liked best in PaintBox Theatre’s Cinderella was the kind of thing this troupe excels at: gags that appeal to the kids and tickle the grownups as well. In this revisionist version, Cinderella (Mia Cain), a bookish girl who disdains frippery, at first declined her Fairy Godmother(Trenda Loftin)’s offer of the traditional fabulous gown and carriage ride to the ball; whereupon the infuriated benefactress threw an all-out, kick-the-floor, toddler-style tantrum that struck a chord in all age groups. The PaintBox season, staged this year in a couple of improvised venues, winds up next week with Tarzan in the grandstand of the Three-County Fairgrounds in Northampton (tommccabe.com/paintbox.html).
Last month Jacob’s Pillow, the region’s cutting-edge dance festival, hosted the Italian children’s theater Compagnia T.P.O. in an immersive, multimedia undersea adventure, Bleu! Performed underneath and sometimes within a billowing, gauzy maze-cum-tent, it was a marriage of sinuous movement, audience involvement and mysterious lighting effects. Of those, the one I really liked was the patterns of light apparently sprayed onto the stage floor from conch shells and other props. Kids were invited to come onstage and do this too, as well as participating in other explorations of the briny blue deep (jacobspillow.org; tpo.it).
PaintBox likewise brings its young spectators right into the action, while NCT Kids! and the Majestic shows maintain a semi-permeable fourth wall, with characters addressing the audience and staging chases through the auditorium, but treating the kids as spectators more than participants. Both approaches have value—the one modeling theater as play, the other teaching tomorrow’s audiences the conventions and expectations of theatergoing. And if anyone asks, I like them both.•
Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and his StageStruck blog is at valleyadvocate.com/blogs/stagestruck.