Columbia Children’s Theatre’s Spaghetti and Meatball Players Stir Up Delicious Fun - Melissa Swick Ellington reviews "The Commedia Snow White"

SnowWhite-PosterWe’re smack in the middle of that sweltering heat for which Columbia is famous, so thank goodness for the cool, original commedia play at Columbia Children’s Theatre. A rollicking band of players bring to life the meaning of commedia dell’arte, or “the very creative comedy of actors,” as described by the gifted (and hilarious) director and writer Jerry Stevenson. The collaborative nature of this Italian theatre tradition soars through the vibrant efforts of an exceptionally talented cast. Melding popular culture, current news items, Broadway musicals, and classic fairy tales with high energy slapstick, the ensemble sparkles in this gem of a production. Skillfully staged by Stevenson with special commedia choreography by Cathy Brookshire, The Commedia Snow White and the Seven Dwarves features five excellent actors who play traditional commedia characters: Punchin (Paul Lindley II), Rosetta (Beth DeHart, with Kendal Turner in the role for certain performances), Pantalone (Julian Deleon), Columbine (Elizabeth Stepp),and Arlequino (Anthony Harvey). These “Spaghetti and Meatball Players” take on various roles within the story, leading to some nifty meta-theatrical moments (such as Stepp’s matter-of-fact observation on what can’t happen if she’s playing Snow White instead of another role.)

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The actors capitalize on the fun interplay of the commedia characters’ tension and discord through the fairy tale framework. Lindley realizes his character’s desire to star in a musical with brilliant commitment and impressive vocals; musical theatre fans will be particularly enthralled by his Broadway mash-up. DeHart’s gift for physical comedy fuels zany sequences like an uproarious running gag with sound cues. Her wicked queen is a hoot, especially in scenes with the magical mirror (the delightful Harvey) who belts out hit singles with attitude. Harvey’s considerable talents are put to good use throughout the engaging production. In a charming performance, Deleon creates effective rapport with the audience as Pantalone the narrator. Stepp achieves both the ridiculous (in a good way) and the sublime in her hilariously enchanting portrayal of the title role. One of the veterans from past commedia productions, Stepp is a marvel onstage; you don’t want to miss her magnificent “All By Myself” breakdown among other triumphs.

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Some of the wit (Voltaire, anyone?) will be over the heads of younger children, but there are plenty of jokes that land for the kids while the grownups giggle over references to Instagram, Photoshop, Divergent, and Twitter. My six-year-old loved the wordplay of homonym humor such as “hair/hare” and “pi/pie.” This is definitely a show that works on multiple levels. When Snow White can’t eat gluten or high fructose corn syrup, hilarity ensues. The ingenious staging of the seven dwarves is simply too good to describe – go see the show and be ready to laugh yourself silly.

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Production design choices hit all the right notes. Ragtag patched curtains frame anappealing proscenium with simple backdrops for efficient scene changes. Costumes by Donna Harvey and Stevenson evoke the stock commedia characters vividly while also giving a nod to contemporary figures such as a certain well-known animated female mouse. Extraordinary attention to detail went into the sound design (Stevenson) and operation (Jim Litzinger), and David Quay provides effective light board operation. Stage manager Crystal Aldamuy must possess superb organizational skills to keep track of all the mayhem this production instigates.

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These actors are quick-witted, clever, and multi-talented (singing, dancing, the ability to turn awesome cartwheels in a big puffy princess gown...) They are also experts at connecting with the child audience members who seek autographs after the show. I continue to be impressed by how the CCT performers relate to individual kids. It is no small feat to deliver a raucous performance and immediately thereafter exude kindness and intuitive understanding of young people.

The only thing I’d like more than attending a performance of The Commedia Snow White and the Seven Dwarves? Watching what must have surely been a laugh riot of a rehearsal and development process. CCT has produced commedia offerings for five consecutive summers; let’s hope for more delicious fun in future from the Spaghetti and Meatball Players.

~ Melissa Swick Ellington

 

Show Times:

Friday, June 20: 8:00 p.m. Late Night Date Night for Mom and Dad Saturday, June 21: 10:30 a.m., 2:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m. Sunday, June 22: 3:00 p.m

Weekday matinees (perfect for day cares & camps):

Thursday, June 19, 10:30 a.m.

Thursday, June 26: SOLD OUT Thursday, July 10: 10:30 a.m. Thursday, July 17: 10:30 a.m. Thursday, July 24, 10:30 a.m.

Call 691-4548 to reserve seats for your campers at a discounted group rate.

For more information, visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/.

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The cast of "Commedia Snow White" tell all to intrepid reporter Kat Bjorn (age 6 and 1/2)

First Grader Kat Bjorn Interviews the Cast of Columbia Children’s Theatre Commedia Snow White

by Kat Bjorn (with some help from Papa)

Kat’s Papa:  Hey folks, technically this isn’t a review of Columbia Children’s Theatre’s latest production, Commedia Snow White (although visit Jasper early next week for just that - a review by Melissa Swick Ellington) but seriously, you have to see this show—even you adults without kids.  After all, there’s a dwarf named Truculent.  And Paul Lindley II (Punchin) performs several numbers from Cats.  And Anthony Harvey (Arlequino) gets stuck in an infinite regress watching himself as The Mirror.  And Elizabeth Stepp (Columbine) as that “Really Pale Brunette Girl” does cartwheels around Beth DeHart’s (Rosetta) smoking tan Evil Queen.  Also, Julian Deleon (Pantalone) has a Spanish pirate hat that belongs in a Captain Morgan commercial.

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Kat Bjorn:  Papa, shhh!!  I’m starting the interview now.

Papa:  Okay, time to turn into a transcriber.  Gotta go.  Seriously, see this show!

Jerry Stevenson, CCT Artistic Director:  How old are you now, Kat?  This is like your 30th interview.

Kat:  I’m six and a half.

Arlequino :  You seem old.

Kat:  I’m just tall for my age.  Who is your favorite dwarf and why?

Pantalone:  Effervescent.  No, Truculent.

Punchin:  Or did you mean the Disney ones?

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Dopey.  He’s got a purple hat.

Punchin:  Duck.

Kat:  Duck?

Punchin:  Duck!

[Entire Cast ducks.]

Kat:  Did you mean Doc?

Punchin:  Hee-hee.

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Kat:  If there were an 8th Dwarf, what would his or her name be?

[Kat whispers to Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White).] 

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Plumpy?

[Entire Cast exchanges looks with one another.]

Entire Cast:  Plumpy.

Evil Queen:  Hairy.

Kat:  If Snow White wears a yellow dress, why isn’t she Snow Yellow?

[Pause.  Laughter ensues.]

Kat:  What is Commedia dell’arte?

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Commedia dell’arte is a form of theatre that originated in Italy in the 1500s—

Punchin:  [in an outrageous Italian accent]  That’s why we have these outrageous Italian accents!

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Ahem.  All the characters are stock characters—

Pantalone:  We go great with soup!

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Sigh.

Pantalone:  I mean, I run the troupe!

Kat:  Next question.  My Papa said your Commedia dell’arte shows have lots of “ChapStick” comedy.  What does that mean?

Really Pale Brunette Girl (aka Snow White):  Something to do with Ruby Lip Smackers, I imagine.

Arlequino:  Did he mean “slapstick”?

Punchin:  I think she knows what she means.

Arlequino:  [standing]  You minda your own-a business!

Punchin:  [standing, grabs Arlequino’s nose]  No, you minda your own-a business!

[Arlequino roundhouses Punchin.]

Evil Queen:  I think you get the picture.

Kat:  Moving right along.  What’s the next project for the Spaghetti & Meatball players?

Jerry Stevenson:  Commedia Our Town!

Papa:  [to himself]  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Jr.

Kat:  I don’t remember seeing puppets at the Columbia Children’s Theatre before.  What was it like to work with puppets?

Pantalone:  Jerry and Jim have been using more and more puppets lately.

Arlequino:  Apparently they work for practically nothing and don’t complain about union violations.

Kat:  Guess my favorite part of the show.

[Entire Cast spends several hours guessing.]

Punchin:  [exhausted]  I give up…my excerpt from Godspell?

Kat:  When the Evil Queen was on fire.  I also liked it when Pantalone came and sat next to me.  I tickled him with my magic rose.

[Shameless Plug:  Bring $3 so your kid can buy a Magic Rose.]

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Kat:  Okay, last question.  What does the fox say?

Entire Cast:  Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding! / Gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding! / Gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!

Kat:  That’s a wrap!  Another slice of pizza, please!

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Kat Bjorn is a rising first grader who loves Riverbanks Zoo and Fancy Nancy chapter book mysteries—and math, if you can believe it.

Commedia Snow White runs through June 22 with performances at the following dates and times:  Saturday, June 14 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.  Sunday, June 15 at 3 p.m.; Friday, June 20 at 8 p.m. (late night date night for grown-ups, with possibly a little more mature humor added in); Saturday, June 21 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, June 22 at 3 p.m. There are additional Thursday matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on June 19, June 26 (sold out), July 10, July 17 and July 24. Tickets are $10 for adult and children 3 and up. Seniors & Military ticket prices are $8. Tickets are $5 for the Saturday 7 p.m. performance. The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located at the Second Level of Richland Mall, 3400 Forest Drive (corner of Beltline and Forest Drive) - or as they say in Forest Acres, over where the old S&S Cafeteria used to be. 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. To learn more about Columbia Children’s Theatre , visit http://columbiachildrenstheatre.com/ .

 

Blond Ambition Collides with Chef Boyardee: The Commedia Rapunzel at Columbia Children’s Theatre (plus the return of celebrity guest blogger Kat Bjorn, age 5)

The Spaghetti and Meatball Players seriously need to get out of town—and take The Commedia Rapunzel with them.  And that’s not a bad thing.  Columbia Children’s Theatre should take this hair-raising (or rather, lowering) show on the Commedia dell’Arte road, and see if they can pull a Muppets Movie and make their way to writer-director Sam LaFrage’s transplant home with that little street you may have heard of, called Broadway. The Commedia Rapunzel is the funniest play I have seen in years.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the dozen or so adults who nearly passed out from laughter by the end of Friday night’s opening performance.  Of course, children will be asking their parents for weeks why they laughed so hard about lines about Judge Judy, Julie Taymor and Jennifer Tilly.  On the way home this evening, I started to explain to my daughter, Kat, about the opening scene from a faux production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, then thought better of it.  I told her that the scene was mostly a joke for the adults, and, yes, that was lemonade Martha kept throwing in George’s face.

Dramatic beat.

The veteran pasta players, which include the exceptionally talented Elizabeth Stepp, along with Bobby Bloom, Paul Lindley II and Beth DeHart, have become such a well-virgin-olive-oiled machine that Columbia residents are experiencing one of those moments that occur once in a generation in a community:  when a group of inspired artists have been together long enough to click on all cylinders and deliver high-performance aesthetics.  I’m not sure we can call the Spaghetti and Meatball Players an artist’s circle so much as a dramatic dumpling.  But the results are just as satisfying.

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LaFrage rightly describes Commedia dell’Arte as allusional theatre.  In this second of his Columbia “princess plays” (last year was The Commedia Cinderella), he has taken the art of the allusion to the outer limits of dramatic writing.  It is as if he has figured out a way to freebase Cap'n Crunch, and share it harmlessly with children.  For minutes on end, jokes from one end of the pop culture spectrum to the other fly at the audience in Gatling gun fashion, with many yuks sailing straight over the heads of children audience members, yet plenty landing squarely all the same, and with enough rubber chicken and Scooby Doo/Keystone Cops chase scenes to make up for the rest.

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As alluded above, take a moment before the show to tell your children that this production will bear no resemblance whatsoever to Tangled, or to any other semi-faithful production of the classic fairy tale of Rapunzel (which one of the Meatballers tells us is German for “corn salad”).  Eventually the story will wend its way to a damsel with distressed hair locked away in a tower by a surrogate mother witch with a penchant for organic farming and small business entrepreneurship, played with spot-on, quirky compassionate conjuring by Beth DeHart (Carolyn Chalfant will alternate in this role.)   Only the title damsel, played by Elizabeth Stepp (whose comic acting really deserves notice by some producer at Nickelodeon) has a singing voice akin to one of those epic fail American Idol teens—and for a few moments, the audience doesn’t feel too terribly bad about her predicament.

Bobby Bloom keeps the zaniness from descending into total abandon with multiple roles, including especially the Commedia narrator Pantalone.  He also nails the part of Prince Prometheus Phoo-Phoo Something-or-Other II, who, clad in Viking helmet and Japanese smoking jacket, settles in the end for a date night at Red Lobster with Rapunzel—which must be the 21st-century version of “happily ever after.”  Paul Lindley II and LaFrage team up in several dynamic duo roles, including two Glee-inspired snobby Mockingbirds, and the outrageously redneck Baker and Baker’s Wife.  And Ashlyn Combs is a great masked transition player in addition to her surprise “bet your bottom dollar” appearance.

As for technical accolades, LaFrage perhaps deserves even more credit for his sound design than writing; I cannot imagine how many painstaking hours he and Stage Manager/Sound Technician Erin Huiett must have spent producing dozens of perfectly timed audio gimmicks.  Last but not least, while the set design is lean (though the show is pleasingly prop heavy), I kept looking at the patchwork of appropriately-ragtag fabric that adorned the set, wondering to myself with a smile whether they had stolen the material from my Aunt Helga’s bloomer drawer or from her curtains.

While there are a few moments that might frighten tiny tots—there’s no getting around the fact that Commedia masks are going to tiptoe into some little ones’ dreams—I just cannot recommend The Commedia Rapunzel enough.  Columbia Children’s Theatre puts on great shows season after season, but they really have outdone themselves this time.  I’m fairly sure I laughed even more than my daughter—I’m still rolling from the reference to NBC’s “the more you know” PSA's.  (See CMT’s special adults-only date night performance on June 22!)  But my daughter’s attention was held captive for the full hour and a half by the frenetic fireworks of LaFrage & Co.  Still, though, I know it’s going to take me the better part of the weekend to explain why it was funny when one of the actors held up a placard of that great comic fallback Alf.

~ Arik Bjorn

 

And now: an exclusive Jasper interview with the cast!

 

The Cast of Rapunzel Lets Down Its Hair with Kat Bjorn

Kat Bjorn:  Mr. Sam [LaFrage, the director], Mr. Jim [Litzinger, CCT Managing Director] said you are from Camden, South Carolina.  Now you live in New York City, “the city that never sleeps.”  What is the difference between the two cities?

Mr. Sam :  Oh my, where do I begin?  New York is much bigger!  I think five families live in Camden.  But it’s bigger than Lugoff.  And there’s lots of theatre in New York.

The Cast of Rapunzel Lets Down Their Hair with Kat Bjorn (1)

KB:  Mr. Sam, Mr. Jerry [Stevenson, CCT Artistic Director, and portrayer of the character Toad on stage] said he directed you when you were in 8th grade.  Did he dress like Toad back then too?

Mr. SAM:  [silence.]  Um, no.  I don’t think so.  He cast me as Willy Wonka.

KB:  Can you spell Commedia dell’Arte?

Entire Cast:  C-O-M-M-E-D-I-A  D-E-L  A-R-T-E.

KB:  Two L’s!  You forgot the other L!

Mr. Bobby:  Yes, but it’s pronounced Arté.  Ar-tay.

[Kat’s Papa mentally plans a later home lesson on Italian vowel pronunciation.]

KB:  What is Commedia dell’Arte?

Mr. SAM:  It’s a type of theatre in Italy that started in the street.  Very physical comedy.  And it was one of the first times that girls were allowed to be in plays.

KB:  Mr. Sam, why did you write a play about Rapunzel?

Mr. SAM:  Mr. Jim and Mr. Jerry selected the play and asked me to write it.  I really enjoyed it.  But it’s a weird fairy tale.  I mean, a girl gets locked up in a tower!

KB:  Mr. Sam, you have written two plays in Columbia now about princesses.  Who is your favorite princess and why?

Mr. SAM:  The Little Mermaid.

KB:  [jumps up and down]  That’s my favorite princess too!

Ms. Elizabeth:  Mine was always Snow White.  We were both brunettes and pale.

KB:  Yeah, but what about the apple?

[Cast thinks deep thoughts about this.]

KB:  What is Rapunzel’s hair made out of?

Ms. Elizabeth:  Weave.  Horse hair.

KB:  That’s what my Papa said, but I didn’t believe him.

Papa:  See!  Sometimes I’m right.

KB:  How come in these kind of plays the actors talk to the kids, but not in some of the other plays at Mr. Jim and Mr. Jerry’s theatre?

Mr. Bobby:  [provides long exposition on the history of the fourth wall in dramatic form.]

Mr. Sam:  Actually—

[Mesmerized by Mr. Bobby’s disquisition, KB motions to Mr. Sam to zip his mouth.]

KB:  Rapunzel, in real life, what is the worst thing that ever happened to your hair?

Ms. Elizabeth:  I had long hair past my bottom when I was your age.  One night I fell asleep next to a rolly brush, and it got all caught up in my hair.  It took my aunt hours to undo it.

KB:  Ms. Elizabeth, if you take off your Rapunzel wig, will your hair be long like mine, short like Mr. Sam’s the director, or bald like my Papa’s?

[Ms. Elizabeth removes her wig and lets down her long hair.  KB and Cast climb it and exit stage left.]

 

Rapunzel runs June 14-23 with performances at the following dates and time:  Friday, June 14 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 15 at 10:30 a.m. & 2 p.m.; Sunday, June 16 at 3 p.m.; Friday, June 21 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, June 22 at 10:30 a.m. & 2 p.m.; and Sunday, June 23 at 3 p.m.  (Saturday, June 22 is a Special Late Night Date Night for adult kids at heart beginning at 9:00 p.m.  Doors open at 8:00.)  There will also be three special matinee performances for kids and adults on Thursday, June 27; Friday, June 28; and Thursday, July 18 at 10:30 a.m.  Tickets are $8 for adult and children 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/ .

 

 

 

 

Arik Bjorn Reviews Cinderella at Columbia Children’s Theatre: Bippity-Boppity Buffoonery with a Spaghetti Twist

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/ .