Somewhere in Columbia this evening, the minds of sleeping children are processing the uproarious phenomenon that is Columbia Children’s Theatre’s current Commedia dell'Arte production of Cinderella. Until tonight, these innocents had never heard Olivia Newton-John sing “Xanadu.” Never once had it occurred to them that a princess could be bippity-boppity-beautiful in a hot pink and floral poodle skirt and piggy slippers. And they have no idea why their parents’ bellies burst with laughter over references to some guy named Dick Cheney and tapeworms, and at the unbridled performance of a white trash, uni-browed wicked stepmother, who makes Norma Desmond look like Mother Teresa. These flowers of our future returned to the comfort of their domiciles on Cinderella’s opening night with a renewed, perhaps refined, appreciation of clowning and fairy tales. And when their cerebellums finally finish stripping away all the layers of buffoonery and silliness sometime in August, what will remain is the essential truth that beauty on the inside matters most. That, and never be the last one caught holding a rubber chicken at the end of a Keystone Cops-style chase scene.
If you have never attended Columbia Children’s Theatre, your family is in for a real treat, one which begins well before the house lights are dimmed. First, you will be doing society a great service by patronizing the only retail mall space in the world that has managed to redeem the boxed blandness of space usually reserved for Aeropostale and Banana Republic outlets.
Artistic Director Jerry Stevenson and Managing Director Jim Litzinger have built a children’s thespian wonderland on the second level of Richland Fashion Mall. Children enter a lobby space filled with suits of armor, masks, and costumes, then are swiftly separated from their parents like wheat from chaff, the adults condemned to “grown-up chairs” while the tots are invited to dance to “Y.M.C.A.” and “The Hokey Pokey” on a brightly-checkered, padded floor space in front of the stage area. Children eat popcorn and Skittles, adults sip Coke, and everyone has a relaxed sense that this is the kind of theatre that was designed in Willy Wonka’s world of forms.
As to the show itself, the above tidbits have prepared you for the fact that this is not your average Cinderella production. The curtain rises (or, rather, is tossed off stage left), and the (Jiminy) crickets begin. Literal crickets, actually, prompting a series of knowing chuckles from adults, and bewildered looks by children. Then a comedic troupe with mock-Italian accents, presenting itself as the Spaghetti & Meatball Players, demolish the fourth wall, and begin banging into each other with parasols and hat racks. From there, it’s a jet-fueled, jolly joker jaunt into humor hyperspace. Eighty minutes later, adults and children alike are ready for giggling triage.
One cannot applaud enough the work of director Sam LaFrage, who, thankfully, has also provided a functional explanation of Commedia dell'Arte in the show program, for parents who mayfeel compelled to explain to their children why this production did not resemble Walt Disney’s familiar version. (Actually, as a parent of a four-year-old daughter, I do recommend that parents explain there will be some differences in advance to their children. My daughter Katherine loved the show, and cherished her onstage dance with actor Edward Precht, who plays the Prince and Meatballer Pantalone, yet she wanted a little reassurance afterwards that Cinderella’s castle estate in Orlando hadn’t been sacked and overrun by Italian clowns.)
As to the other Meatballers, Elizabeth Stepp brings enough pure energy to the stage to keep the Olympic flame alive until 2020. Paul Lindley II and LaFrage (who moonlights as director and Meatballer) play gender-bending stepsisters of such pure, perfidious evil that I expected Macbeth’s Hecate to rise from the depths in the guise of Snooki. LaFrage also brings down the house at one point as a ding-a-ling Chip Potts, lampooning the classic song “Beauty and the Beast.” And Beth DeHart’s dual roles as roller skating fairy godmother and wicked stepmother Viola Scruffanickle quite nearly put one adult sitting near me into comic cardiac arrest.
Don’t just go to this show. Go in droves. Bring your neighbors. Bring your friends. Bring your worst enemies, and let the goofiness settle your long-term differences. (For all that, consider the excellent weekday group rate that Columbia Children’s Theatre offers. See website below for more details.) But most importantly, bring your children. Bring everyone’s children! Then immediately afterward, have them call their grandparents and enjoy the pure thrill of watching them try to explain every strange and wonderful hilarity they have just experienced.
~ Arik Bjorn
Cinderella runs June 15-24, with performances at the following dates and time: Friday, June 15 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 16 at 10:30 a.m. & 2 p.m.; Sunday, June 17 at 3 p.m.; Wednesday, June 20 at 10:30 a.m.; Thursday, June 21 at 10:30 a.m.; Friday, June 22 at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 23 at 10:30 a.m. & 2 p.m.; Sunday, June 24 at 3 p.m.; and a special Thursday, July 19 performance at 10:30 a.m. Tickets are $8 for adults and children ages 3 and up. The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located at the Second Level of Richland Mall, 3400 Forest Drive (corner of Beltline and Forest Drive). Enter the Second Level parking garage walkway and park in Level 2-L for easy access. Call 691.4548 for more information or to reserve tickets for groups of 10 or more. To learn more about Columbia Children’s Theatre, visit http://columbiachildrenstheatre.com/ .