Theater is a medium that, intrinsically, should appeal to children; it’s about make-believe, about putting on a costume and make-up, about telling a story by pretending to be someone you’re not, and then experiencing situations vicariously through that other persona. At its best it should also be an enriching experience, which both entertains and teaches universal lessons to its audiences, be they young or old.
Two of the Philadelphia area’s finest purveyors of children’s theater have triumphed again this year with their holiday offerings, with first-rate productions that hold appeal for families and theater lovers of all ages. And each is doing it with a remount of one of its biggest children’s hits from a past season, replete with audience interaction, and with supplemental programming that expands and enhances the theater experience for kids.
TREASURE ISLAND, at People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, marks the first revival of a production from its popular eight-year-old musical Panto series. Originally produced by People’s Light in 2007, this year’s freshly revised version of the familiar story has new music, new dialogue, a black light sequence, and the current and local references that define the British Panto tradition of family-friendly winter entertainment. Among the most amusing ingredients in the company’s original comedic take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s seafaring adventure–which here departs from Philadelphia’s Dock Street and navigates the Delaware River–are a slow-motion fight scene and running visual and aural references to James Cameron’s 1997 film TITANIC. Since the younger audience members weren’t even born yet in 1997, clearly the TITANIC gags were aimed at adults, who responded with childlike enthusiasm and unabashed laughter.
Director Pete Pryor (who appears as the hilariously unintelligible Captain Smilenot, and, since September, also serves as the company’s new Associate Artistic Director) enjoys that the Pantos are family based, yet maintain the level of quality and intelligence required for grown-ups:
“The shows are entertaining for the kids, but there are also references that appeal to adults, so they really are designed for the whole family. I like the core values of People’s Light, where children’s programming and education are fundamental. There’s no insularity, everything is integrated. Our Artistic Director Abigail Adams is dedicated both to learning and to entertainment, for children and adults, so there’s no difference in approach in terms of excellence and service to the community. We also work with the Pathway School [in Norristown, which serves students with neurological impairments, including autism], and all the students there are treated equally, there is no change in approach or standards.”
That high standard is apparent in the accomplished ensemble of TREASURE ISLAND; the cast members number among the most talented performers of musical-comedy in the Philadelphia community. Decked out in colorful costumes by Rosemarie McKelvey, especially rousing performances are turned in by a cross-dressing Mark Lazar as Mother Hawkins (the Dame, a traditional role in the Panto, always played by a male actor); Richard Ruiz as the tyrannical pirate Long John Silver (who, upon being heartily booed by the audience, notes that “Malvern is so hostile”); and Joilet Harris as Mama Kura, the native island sage who tames Long John, and teaches both the fictional treasure-hunters and the real-life audience that love is more important than money. And the motley crew of “aaarrrgggghhhhing” pirates, featuring Andrew Kane as the flute-playing Scotsman Tinnitis Tom, Justin Jain as the one-handed Israel Chopped Hand, and Chris Faith as the burn-marked Ezekial Machete Scabbs, all repulse and delight with abandon. It’s obvious that the cast is having a ball, and the audience can’t help but respond in kind.
Running concurrently in Philadelphia, Arden Theatre Company revisits CHARLOTTE’S WEB, the E.B. White classic with which Arden Children’s Theatre began thirteen years ago. The heartwarming tale of unexpected friendship, selfless kindness, and the natural cycle of life and death are presented for young theatergoers with honesty and directness, while at the same time entertaining them with original live music, and the simulated movements, sounds, and personalities of the show’s anthropomorphic barnyard animals.
As with People’s Light, the Arden dedicates the same resources to its children’s productions as to its mainstage work, hiring an impressive roster of professional designers, actors, and directors. The outstanding ensemble of CHARLOTTE’S WEB, directed by Whit MacLaughlin, includes both veteran and emerging actors, all performing double duty as the humans and animals that inhabit the farm. Especially captivating in the supporting cast are Charlie DelMarcelle as the gander, accurately capturing its anserine moves and honking; Brian Anthony Wilson as the big sheep, who delivers the “baaaaaaad” news; and Anthony Lawton as Templeton, the rat with a heart of gold, who, despite his inherent base nature and sleazy demeanor, elicited sighs from the little girl seated behind me, along with the comment, “I love the rat!” So do I. Equally lovable are the two stars of the show–Aubie Merrylees as the ingenuous pig Wilbur, whose sensitive portrayal will leave you wiping away a tear; and Sarah Gliko as Charlotte the spider, whose arachnoid weaving and gliding bring balletic grace and refinement to the doomed heroic insect.
Merrylees notes that the story’s themes of fear and death are heavy material for a child. But he lauds Arden’s “commitment to telling truthful stories that the whole family can relate to and learn from . . . [without] talking down to its audience . . . These shows aren’t just for kids–they are a chance for the whole family to come, and . . . family discussions are a very real part of that experience.”
The serious approach to family programming has paid off for both companies; Arden Children’s Theatre was awarded two Barrymore Awards in October, including Outstanding Production of a Musical, for its 2010-11 production of THE FLEA AND THE PROFESSOR, and People’s Light was the recipient of multiple Barrymores in 2009 for its production of CINDERELLA, directed by Pryor. Individual cast members have also reaped the personal rewards of playing to children. Emilie Krause, who charms in CHARLOTTE’S WEB as the radiant animal-loving adolescent Fern Arable, relishes the relationship she has with her young audiences:
“So often when you work on a show the process becomes about how to tell the story, how to inhabit the character skillfully, and about how to do a good job. CHARLOTTE’S WEB has become about joy. The energy that a young audience brings into a room is such a gift. They will laugh with you. They’ll cry with you. On the first night of our previews, when Fern was trying to come up with a name for her new pig, the children were yelling from the edges of their seats, ‘Wilbur! Wilbur!’ Every time Fern tried a different name they would feverishly cry, ‘Nooooo!’ I’ve never felt an adult audience care that deeply about what my character was doing onstage. Perhaps they have, but I’ve never been able to hear it echoing through the room.”
Following every performance of CHARLOTTE’S WEB, children can participate in a post-show question-and-answer session with the cast, and have the opportunity to meet the actors in the lobby. Both Arden and People’s Light offer a full roster of events to augment the children’s shows, and run drama schools and workshops throughout the year for children of all levels. These personal childhood experiences at the theater are not soon forgotten; they can have a profound impact on future generations of theater lovers and theater artists.
Krause has fond memories of her first contact with her profession through a “Theater and Kids” summer camp, recalling “the thrill of volunteering in improv class, the weathered bits of sheet music that I would practice again and again during the car ride home, and how special it felt to stand on stage with the other campers. All of a sudden, we had become something. I didn’t know what it was yet, but I knew that I was in love with it.”
Pryor, too, was inspired, from the age of ten or eleven, by his involvement in community theater in Northeast Philadelphia, with the Vogue Players. “I got great joy from it, and I also was good at it—I got a lot of positive feedback,” he said. “Vogue founder Tom Kortowski, and the current Performing Arts Director, Tom Dignam, did a lot for kids at Vogue; I have a great admiration for both of them.” Families in the greater Philadelphia area are very fortunate that People’s Light and the Arden carry on this important work, and continue to open up the world of theater to children. And adults.
TREASURE ISLAND: A MUSICAL PANTO
By Kathryn Petersen
based on the book by Robert Louis Stevenson
Music and lyrics by Michael Ogborn
Directed by Pete Pryor
People’s Light & Theatre Company
39 Conestoga Road
Malvern, PA 19355
November 16, 2011-January 8, 2012
Adapted by Joseph Robinette
from the book by E.B. White
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
Arden Theatre Company
F. Otto Haas Stage
40 N. 2nd Street
November 30, 2011-January 29, 2012
Latest posts by Debra Miller (see all)
- Catching Up with Costume Designer Millie Hiibel – May 23, 2013
- The Lantern Scores a Huge Victory with HEROES – May 23, 2013
- STARGIRL at People’s Light: A Parable of Acceptance for Teens – April 26, 2013
- Luna’s FUTUREFEST Envisions the Road Ahead – April 21, 2013
- InterAct’s PERMANENT COLLECTION Explores Diverse Perspectives on Art and Race – April 14, 2013