REVIEW: Columbia Children's Theatre presents The Commedia Hansel and Gretel by Melissa Swick Ellington

CCT hansel Columbia Children’s Theatre presents a delightful summer treat with The Commedia Hansel and Gretel. Following numerous other commedia summer shows produced by CCT, Hansel and Gretel benefits from the collaborative nature of the Italian theatre tradition commedia dell’arte. Innovative director Jerry Stephenson aptly describes the entertaining characters as “beloved, rag-tag, fame-hungry players,” and audiences of all ages will enjoy their mischief.

The “Spaghetti and Meatball Players” include five commedia characters (Columbine, Pantalone, Arlequino, Punchin, and Rosetta) who take on multiple roles within the story. As Columbine, Mary Miles becomes an amusing Gretel, tap-dancing and pouting her way through the forest. Paul Lindley II’s Arlequino plays her long-suffering brother Hansel with charm and verve. The fairy tale siblings achieve effective rapport with the young audience through interaction that feels both genuine and satisfyingly silly. In the role of Punchin, Baker Morrison delivers a hilarious performance as two iconic stars of Food Network fame, while Noah Barker’s Pantalone succeeds as the humorously incompetent fairy tale father and other roles. As Rosetta, Kaitlyn Fuller does double duty as stepmother and witch; she skillfully creates distinctly memorable characters who menace Hansel and Gretel with flair. (At certain performances, alternate actors will play the following roles: George Dinsmore as Pantalone, Taylor Diveley as Arlequino, Julian Deleon as Punchin, and Frances Farrar as Rosetta.)

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As audiences have come to anticipate, CCT puts forth first class production quality. Vibrant flag banners liven up the stage, which features a useful proscenium for backdrop changes in Patrick Faulds’ attractive set. Jim Litzinger’s lighting and sound design choices work beautifully to support the production, and Stevenson and Donna Harvey score a big win in the costume department with colorful creations that highlight appealing use of shape and texture. Company/stage manager Candice Fuller keeps everything on track in what must be a riotous backstage experience.

This high energy performance successfully combines popular culture and entertainment with classic fairy tale conventions. While some of the comical references will not be familiar to young children, there are plenty of jokes that make sense to the littlest audience members as the older crew snickers over references to the Kardashians, Paula Deen, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, among many more. The engaging actors capitalize on the improvisational aspect of the commedia tradition as they incorporate audience responses with quick-witted confidence. As the latest installment from the Spaghetti and Meatball Players, Hansel and Gretel is a welcome addition to the clever commedia tradition at Columbia Children’s Theatre.

Performances of The Commedia Hansel & Gretel at the Columbia Children’s Theatre will run through June 19 (Saturday at 10:30 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 3:00 p.m.). Ticket prices are $10 for children three years old through adult, $8 for seniors and active duty military, and $5 for all tickets on Saturdays at 7:00 pm only. Tickets may be purchased from the box office (803-691-4548) or online at www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com.

 

-- Melissa Swick Ellington

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Review: Columbia Children Theatre's Elephant & Piggie's We Are in a Play

Elephant-and-Piggie-Poster-Web-232x300 by Melissa Swick Ellington

If you have Mo Willems fans in your house, make sure to visit Columbia Children’s Theatre for a marvelous production of his Elephant and Piggie’s We Are In a Play!, with book and lyrics by Willems and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. And, really, even if you’re not already a devotee of Willems’ beloved children’s books, this musical will be an excellent introduction to the funny, real, heart-warming world of Willems. Director Jerry Stevenson and his talented team work their magic once again; the gratifying level of artistry that pervades CCT productions continues to reward audiences of every age.

Just as in Willems’ series of books, anxious Elephant and carefree Piggie are best friends who zestfully embrace diverse life experiences, including attending a party, learning how to dance, playing the trumpet, and sharing ice cream. Yet even best friends encounter bumps along the road, such as accidentally breaking a friend’s new toy. The meta-theatrical realizations of the song “We Are in A Play” provide hilarious commentary on the experience of live performance, while upbeat numbers like “Ice Cream Hero” enliven the show.

As mother to two proud Mo Willems enthusiasts, I was eager to accompany my young family to the CCT performance. (Full disclaimer: my kids are such hardcore Willems fans that they wore Elephant and Piggie costumes for Halloween last year; attending this production was serious business for our crew!) We all loved this show when we saw it at the children’s theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina last fall, and I daresay our family adored Elephant and Piggie even more at our hometown CCT. In particular, the believable comradery of the title characters in this production grounds the humorous action in a real relationship that resonates for kids and their families. My eight-year-old daughter observed that attending the CCT show felt like “going inside an Elephant and Piggie book!”

Paul Lindley II delivers an exquisite performance in the tour de force role of Gerald, the big-hearted, clever, endearingly worried elephant. Georgie Harrington shines as the perfect partner in friendship and fun through her heartfelt portrayal of insouciant and expressive Piggie. The pair demonstrates impressive vocal ability as well as enjoyable physical comedy, creating engaging interpretations of Willems’ cherished characters. Lindley and Harrington find the delicate balance of bittersweet poignancy in their characters’ understanding of the ephemeral nature of theatre, while affirming comfort in each other through a lovely rendition of “We’ll Be Friends.” As the sassy Squirrelles, Brandi Smith, Toni Moore, and Carol Beis provide winning commentary and an inviting “backup singer” presence, while Kaitlyn Fuller offers appealing performances as the droll Dog and ice cream salesman Penguin. (At alternate performances, Taylor Diveley plays Gerald; Diveley and Crystal Aldamuy play Dog and Penguin.)

Clever costuming choices by the brilliant Donna Harvey evoke aspects of the animal characters with color and texture, while suggesting vibrant personality traits through the style of clothing. Callbacks to other favorites in the Willems canon are another highlight; my family is somewhat obsessed with that fabulous “Pigeon” cane. The familiar color palette of the book series emerges in the whimsical and highly functional set design by Jim Litzinger and Harvey. Lindley provides strong music direction, while Aldamuy and Stevenson create charming choreography. The gifted professionals at CCT are at the top of their game with this stellar production.

At the show’s conclusion, my kindergarten son declared, “Wow! That was pretty awesome, right? Elephant and Piggie stick together!” Audience members of all ages are sure to agree after enjoying the irrepressible delights of Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Play! at Columbia Children’s Theatre. Performances will continue on Friday, February 26 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, February 27 at 10:30 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m.; and Sunday, February 28 at 3:00 pm. Ticket pricing includes $10 for adults and children ages 3 and up, $8 for active duty military and seniors, and $5 for Saturday night performances. Advance reservations are encouraged; visit ww.columbiachildrenstheatre.com or call 803-691-4548 for more information.

REVIEW: Jingle Arrgh the Way! at Columbia Children's Theatre by Melissa Swick Ellington

Jingle-Poster-Web-232x300 Holiday cheer abounds at Columbia Children’s Theatre with the lively production of Jingle Arrgh the Way!: A ‘How I Became a Pirate’ Christmas Adventure (book, music and lyrics by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman; based on a story by Melinda Long). Snappy dialogue and raucous physical comedy amuse audiences of all ages in this companion to the popular How I Became a Pirate, also produced previously at CCT. Young Jeremy Jacob goes on another adventure with Captain Braid Beard and his crew; this time, their destinations include the North Pole and his school’s Christmas play. The show’s comedic success was made evident in the enthusiastic audience’s glee at the opening night performance I attended with my eight-year-old daughter and our friends. (My daughter was hooked before the show even started, as she declared with excitement: “I love that the title of the play is a joke! Jingle Arrgh the Way is supposed to be Jingle ALL the Way, get it?”)

Top-notch performers bring the holiday romp to life, led by the engaging Ashlyn Combs as Jeremy Jacob and the captivating Lee O. Smith as Braid Beard. The hilarious pirate crew features talented actors including Julian Deleon as the charming Pierre, Andy Nyland as the irrepressible Sharktooth, and the marvelous Brandi Smith in the role of Maxine. Charley Krawczyk makes a memorable appearance as Santa, and Paul Lindley II delights viewers in the role of Swill as he spouts information to a hilariously excessive degree. (Kaitlyn Fuller plays Swill at certain performances.)

The actors’ appealing banter draws children into the pirates’ world, highlighted by nifty special effects and plenty of “wow” moments. Director Jerry Stevenson steers this ship with gratifying expertise, and Crystal Aldamuy contributes entertaining choreography. Lindley provides strong musical direction; audience members will especially enjoy singing along with “pirate” versions of familiar holiday favorites.  Donna Harvey’s vibrant costumes work beautifully with the inventive set (designed and constructed by Harvey and Jim Litzinger). The capable production staff also includes Mary Litzinger, Toni Moore, Deleon, Nathan Fuller, Natalie Combs, Candice Fuller, Betsy Siemers, and Dianne Lee.

My young companions both gave Jingle Arrgh the Way! rave reviews. Our nine-year-old friend observed: “Swill is really funny. My favorite part was when Santa met the Captain. That was fun.” My daughter contributed: “I loved that the play is about the pirates from How I Became a Pirate. It was great that the pirates helped Jeremy Jacob with his school Christmas play! Also, there are some scenes that remind me of the book Pirates Don’t Change Diapers. I liked that the actors were the same performers from when they did How I Became a Pirate. Jeremy Jacob, the main character, is my favorite. Kids should go see this funny play!” Audiences will want to stick around after the show, as the traditional post-performance cast appearance for autographs and photos is always a hit with families at CCT.

Columbia Children’s Theatre will present Jingle Arrgh the Way! on Saturday, December 12 at10:30 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m. and Sunday, December 13 at 3:00 p.m. There will also be a special “Late Night Date Night” adults-only performance on Friday, December 11 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 for children ages three through adult; tickets for seniors and active duty military are $8. (For Saturday 7:00 p.m. performances, tickets are $5.00). To purchase tickets, visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com or call (803) 691-4548.

Double Review: Br'er Rabbit - Columbia Children's Theatre and NiA Theatre

BrerRabbit Thumb Theatre review by Melissa Swick Ellington

A NiA production in collaboration with Columbia Children’s Theatre is a sure sign of clever family entertainment, and the current offering of Br’er Rabbit will delight audiences of all ages. Written by Darion McCloud, H. Loretta Brown, and Heather McCue, this version of the trickster’s tale celebrates music and rhythm, vibrant characters, audience interplay, and cunning creativity. Recognizing the complex legacy of Br’er Rabbit in his director’s notes, McCloud envisions an approach to the folk character that “really does belong to all of us.” With this production, NiA and CCT present an interpretation of the tale which delivers “that upshot of joy.” (Further observations on the history surrounding the “Br’er” tradition are explored in the accompanying interview by young Kat Bjorn.)

A master storyteller himself, the magnetic performer McCloud is perfectly cast in the storytelling role of Anansi the spider. McCloud’s interaction with the young audience members seems natural and genuine. Even his dynamic facial expressions foster an atmosphere of encouraging warmth. As the crafty and appealing Br’er Rabbit, Bonita Peeples plays the resourceful trickster with quick-witted glee. Peeples draws in the audience with admirable skill, made evident by children’s eagerness to cover for Br’er Rabbit when the other animals realize they have been fooled by the rascal. At the performance attended by this reviewer, kids insisted “She’s nowhere!” and “Run for your life!” in their efforts to help the beloved main character. (An added treat: audiences even get to appreciate her glorious singing voice!)

The entire ensemble delivers first rate performances which include McCue as the brainy and sassy Br’er Tiger, Charlie Goodrich as Br’er Bear, Michael Clark as Br’er Lion, and Jimmy Wall as Mr. Man and Tar Baby.  Supported by percussionist Don Laurin Johnson, this talented group weaves a captivating web of magical sounds and sights. Moments of aural symphony encourage audience members to clap along, and in the case of my preschooler, offer an enthusiastic “Yeah!” At certain performances, alternate actors appear in the roles of Br’er Lion (Clark Wallace), Br’er Bear (Brown), and Mr. Man/Tar Baby (Julian Deleon and Goodrich).

An innovative approach to physical theatricality pervades the production. From the beguiling staging of the opening spider sequence to the finely tuned collaboration of Peeples and McCue in the big chase through the rousing group dance in the final scene, these performers embody characters and story with boldness and flair. Adults will particularly enjoy the pop culture references (check out that Scarecrow!) and wordplay such as the “arugula” jokes, while the kids relish the opportunity to offer ideas on sticky substances for the Tar Baby (peanut butter and jelly, gum, melted candy, and marshmallows were popular choices).

McCloud provides creative vision as director, costumer, and sound designer, and Wall conjures effective visuals as makeup designer. Costumes evoke animal identity while also inviting children to imagine. McCue (company manager), Crystal Aldamuy (stage manager), and Jim Litzinger (sound and light technician) contribute to a cohesive production team.

As one youngster declared early in the performance, “I knew it was going to be funny!” Columbia families have come to anticipate high quality theatre at CCT, and the collaboration with NiA to produce Br’er Rabbit is an enjoyable success. Treat yourself to the rollicking good time of Br’er Rabbit, and you will likely agree with my preschool son’s post-show exultation: “That was FUN!”

(l-r): Heather McCue (Br’er Tiger), Jimmy Wall (Tar Baby), Darion McCloud (director, Anansi), Thespian Formerly Known as Scarecrow, Charlie Goodrich (Br’er Bear), Michael Clark (Br’er Lion)

 

Rising Second Grader Interviews Cast of Columbia Children’s Theatre Br’er Rabbit by Kat Bjorn (with some help from her Papa, Arik)

 

Kat’s Papa:  Hey folks, technically this part isn’t a review of Columbia Children’s Theatre’s current production, Br’er Rabbit, but seriously, you have to see this show—even adults without kids.  You see, there’s a Scarecrow Formerly Known as Prince; Br’er Lions & Tigers & Bears, oh my!; plus more Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Da than you can shake a briar patch at.  Also—

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

Papa:  Okay, time to go be scribe.  Seriously, see this show!

 

Kat Bjorn:  What does “Br’er” mean?

Darion McCloud (Anansi the Storyteller):  That’s a good question.  It means “brother,” but it can be used for boys and girls—all humanity, really.

Heather McCue (Br’er Tiger):  Lady tigers thank you!

 

Kat Bjorn:  (pointing at Br’er Lion) Are you a lady?

Michael Clark (Br’er Lion):  Are you referring to my fabulous wig—I mean mane?

 

Kat Bjorn:  Take off your mane.

Br’er Lion:  Don’t mind if I do; it’s getting hot in here.

 

Jerry Stevenson, CCT Artistic Director:  He’s not even a natural blonde.

Kat Bjorn:  If “Br’er” means “brother,” and they’re brothers, how come Br’er Lion, Br’er Tiger and Br’er Bear are always trying to kill Br’er Rabbit?

Br’er Tiger:  Do you have any brothers and sisters?  I have a sister, and we fight like cats and dogs.

 

Anansi the Storyteller:  Also, let’s face it, they’re predators.  And rabbits taste good.

Kat Bjorn:  The characters, right?  People don’t really eat people.

 

Anansi the Storyteller:  Correct.  NiA Company does not endorse cannibalism.

Jim Litzinger, CCT Managing Director:  Nor does Columbia Children’s Theatre!

 

Kat Bjorn:  Next question.  My Papa says the Br’er Rabbit tales were sometimes codes for African-Americans a long time ago.  What does this mean, and what’s a code?

 

Anansi the Storyteller:  A code is when people say one thing but mean something else.  And your Papa is right.  During slavery, black people were treated really badly.  They used these stories to feel better.  Br’er Rabbit was code for black people; Br’er Fox and the other Br’er predators were the slaveholders.

 

Br’er Tiger:  It had a lot to do with power

Anansi the Storyteller:  Right.  They had to speak in code or risk getting punished.

 

Kat Bjorn:  Why does Br’er Rabbit carry a knapsack in the show poster but not in the play?

Anansi the Storyteller:  Um, director’s choice, I guess.

Papa whispers to Kat.

Kat Bjorn:  Did it have anything to do with budget?

Jerry Stevenson, CCT Artistic Director:  Knapsacks definitely would have broken the bank.

 

Kat Bjorn:  I’m pretty good at crafts.  I could make a knapsack pretty cheap.

Anansi the Storyteller:  We’ll have to hire you next time as a financial consultant.

 

Kat Bjorn:  Excuse me, Mr. Scarecrow, can you tell us about “Purple Rain”?

Anansi the Storyteller:  Actually, that’s the Actor Formerly Known as Scarecrow.  The scarecrow’s real name is Button-Bright.  It’s named after a character in L. Frank Baum’s Sky Island.  The Prince mask is another story altogether.

 

Kat Bjorn:  In the book we’re reading at home, Uncle Remus is the storyteller.  But in this play, it’s Anansi the Spider.  Why?

Anansi the Storyteller:  Actually, many of the Br’er Rabbit stories were originally African folktales.  And in Africa, Anansi the Spider narrates the tales.

 

Br’er Lion:  Well, I never got there, did I—thanks to Br’er Rabbit!  So we’ll never know!

Kat Bjorn:  How do you prepare to act like an animal character?

 

Bonita Peeples (Br’er Rabbit):  I use my imagination!  I try to think childlike.  And rehearsal is a great place for me to practice my imagination!

Kat Bjorn:  What was your favorite part of the show?

 

Jimmy Wall (Tar Baby):  When they’re planning to cook Br’er Rabbit.

Br’er Rabbit:  When Br’er Rabbit interrupts Sister Moon in the shower.

Br’er Lion:  The Tar Baby story.

 

Kat Bjorn:  Final question:  How come Br’er Rabbit always outsmarts Br’ers Lion, Tiger & Bear, but isn’t smart enough to realize Tar Baby isn’t really alive?

Br’er Rabbit:  You can’t be smart about everything—but I did get myself out of that jam, didn’t I?

 

Bre’er Rabbit runs June 12-21 with performances at the following dates and times:  Friday, June 12 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, June 13 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, June 14 at 3 p.m.; Saturday, June 20 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, June 21 at 3 p.m.  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).  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/ .

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Columbia Children's Theatre's Skippyjon Jones by Melissa Ellington

sskippyjon Columbia Children’s Theatre brings a beloved character from children’s literature to life in Skippyjon Jones in the Cirque de Olé. This production will delight both long-time fans of Skippyjon Jones as well as those making their first acquaintance with the spunky little Siamese cat convinced he is a Chihuahua. Based on the children’s book by Judy Schachner, the musical features book and lyrics by David Morgan with music by Ricky Hernandez and additional music and lyrics by Shannon Morgan. From the domestic life of a cat family to the magic of a circus stage, Skippyjon Jones seeks adventure and glory as his Chihuahua alter ego. Director Jerry Stevenson, Assistant Director Crystal Aldamuy, and Music Director Paul Lindley II share an enjoyable blend of madcap hilarity and artful precision. Skippyjon Jones benefits from the collaboration of actors, designers, and directors working at the top of their collective game. Accompanied by my seven-year-old daughter and our friends, this reviewer attended the first Sunday matinee, which delivered plenty of zany hijinks. Skippyjon Jones in the Cirque de Olé hits all the right notes.

With one look at the cast list, seasoned CCT audience members will settle in happily for a luxurious hour while new visitors may find themselves pleasantly surprised by the top-notch talent. Beth DeHart, Kendal Turner, and Carol Beis launch the show with giggly energy as a feisty trio of kitty sisters of Skippyjon Jones, and the actors shine in additional roles when the circus comes to town. As the beleaguered and loving Mama June Bug Jones, Brandi Smith soars with a gorgeous soprano and belts a memorable “caterwaulin’” country number that will inspire any parent to reminisce about that special mystery, the pre-kid life. Anthony Harvey contributes a powerful (and uproarious) performance as “strongdog” Putzi Shtrungleboot, while Skippyjon Jones’ companions Pintolito, Don Diego, and Poquito Tito (played by the remarkable Julian Deleon, Andy Nyland, and DeHart) keep the audience howling with laughter. A performer of great magnetism and charisma, Lindley adds another winner to his considerable collection of CCT roles as the irresistible Skippyjon Jones. With only a trampoline and a flashlight, Lindley mesmerizes young viewers through the kind of imaginative play that children recognize and embrace. Clever banter provides ample humor that sets adults chuckling (“Downton Tabby,” anyone?) and slapstick shenanigans inspire shrieks of delighted excitement from the kids.

The production staff achieves adept scenic design (Jim Litzinger and Stevenson) and charming costumes (Donna Harvey and Stevenson). Keep an eye on the mirror, for the crafty timing of Skippyjon Jones’ “reflections” is not to be missed. Much of the circus sequence’s enchantment grows from the continual unfolding of surprise and amazement. The level of artistic collaboration evident in the ingenious employment of projections and shadow work rivals anything I’ve seen on a stage in New York, in South Carolina, or anywhere in between. From the moment Turner as the Ringmaster began to create exquisite shadow imagery and throughout the extraordinary interplay between actors and projections, this reviewer kept thinking, “I’m so glad our kids get to see this.”

After the show, my friend observed that each time she sees a CCT performance she thinks they can’t get any better – and then the next production succeeds in a wonderful new way. Performances of Skippyjon Jones in the Cirque de Olé will be Saturday, April 18 at 10:30 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m., and Sunday, April 19 at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 for children three years old through adults, $8 for seniors and active duty military, and $5 on Saturday nights at 7:00. To purchase tickets, visit www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com or call (803) 691-4548.

REVIEW: Bunnicula at Columbia Children's Theatre by Melissa Ellington

Bunnicula-Poster-THUMB-231x300 Hop on over to Columbia Children’s Theatre and enjoy Bunnicula, a musical based on the book by Deborah and James Howe. Adapted for the stage by Jon Klein with lyrics by Klein and music by Chris Jeffries, Bunnicula explores the intriguing tale of a mysterious rabbit adopted by an unsuspecting family of four. Their canny feline, however, is suspicious of Bunnicula and uses literary knowledge to convince the family dog that this cute little bunny with the glowing red eyes is actually….a vampire! Why else would the vegetables in the fridge suddenly be drained of their juice? The animals prove to be entertaining sleuths as family life unfolds around their humorous investigation of Bunnicula. My first grade daughter gleefully describes Bunnicula as “very scary…and very funny!”

The performers present an appealing world with gullible yet likeable people and more sophisticated (while still charmingly flawed) animals. In the central roles of Harold (the dog) and Chester (the cat), Jerry Stevenson and Paul Lindley II deliver standout performances as a crowd-pleasing duo with resonant voices. Stevenson’s winning charisma as Harold draws the audience right into the heart of the show. Anyone who has spent time with a disdainful cat will recognize the feline temperament in Lindley’s superb depiction of the persnickety Chester.

Matthew Wright handles the puppeteer responsibilities for Bunnicula with seamless fluidity and impressive agility. Julian Deleon and Toni V. Moore generate strong stage presence as Mr. and Mrs. Monroe, grounding the wilder plot twists with a comforting sense of parental security. Riley Smith (Pete Monroe) and Kate Chalfant (Toby Monroe) convey youth and innocence without becoming overly cloying. Understudies include Kaitlyn Fuller (Harold), Anthony Harvey (Chester), and Taylor Diveley (Mr. Monroe).

For this show to work well, audiences need to root for both the animals and the humans, and the CCT team does an admirable job of making this happen. Crystal Aldamuy’s choreography works effectively to create visual interest and enhance characterization, while Lindley provides adept music direction for the show’s engaging musical numbers. Rest assured that the play’s humor reaches across generations, with slapstick hilarity alongside clever wordplay. You won’t want to miss seeing that “celery stalk,” among numerous other priceless moments.

CCT first produced Bunnicula in 2009, and director Stevenson explains that this production recreates and further develops the previous show’s style, which establishes “everything in a grayscale ‘film noir’ setting except for the cat and dog.” Through their approach to conveying the animals’ perspective, the production team crafts a memorable world where scenic and costume design choices enrich the audience experience of character and plot. The accomplished production staff includes costumers Donna Harvey and Stevenson, scenic designers Jim Litzinger and Stevenson, stage manager Brandi Smith, original puppet builder John Riddle, and the (delightfully named) “puppet medic” Anthony Harvey. Sound and lighting punctuate key moments with clarity as executed by Smith and Litzinger. The beautifully realized design elements communicate dramatic information while connecting with the audience, and viewers of all ages will enjoy reaping the benefits of this noteworthy achievement.

Bunnicula is at once both magical and recognizable. Children are swept up with the fantastic intrigue of the plot while also relating to real life experiences: caring for a pet, navigating family life, being afraid, getting in trouble, looking for answers. High quality children’s theatre in our own community? Seems magical to me…and I sure am glad it’s a reality.

"Jack Frost" - Melissa Swick Ellington reviews the world premiere of the new show at Columbia Children's Theatre

jackfrost1 Columbia Children’s Theatre presents Jack Frost, a world premiere musical with book and lyrics by Crystal Aldamuy and music by Paul Lindley II, through Sunday, December 14. Here in Columbia, SC, we have plenty of reasons to be grateful for the presence of CCT in our community, such as high quality children’s theatre performed by professional actors, educational outreach programs, and theatre training and performance opportunities for youth. Yet another reason to cherish CCT emerges with the production of Jack Frost, which further establishes the theatre’s commitment to the development of new works. Past original productions have included adaptations of Puss and Boots, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, and a number of commedia dell’arte shows. Any artist who has collaborated on the production of new work for the theatre can tell you that such endeavors require a special level of dedication, hard work, and ingenuity.  We are fortunate to have a children’s theatre in Columbia that persists in the development and presentation of new plays and musicals right here in our own community.  Audiences will be delighted by the enchanting and upbeat experience of Jack Frost.

Director Jerry Stevenson delivers an entertaining production of this clever new musical by Aldamuy and Lindley.  Creative characters, inventive humor, and enjoyable music delighted the audience at the matinee I attended with my husband and two young children. The story explores the family life of the title character, focusing on parent-child conflict over tradition and responsibilities. While Isis and Ike Frost expect their son Jack to become part of the family business, Jack would rather cause mischief and go on adventures than toil away producing individual snowflakes or painting leaves. The warm Kringle family poses a worthy counterpoint to the icy Frost folks. When Crystal, the Kringle daughter, switches places with Jack, both families have a lot to learn.

Composer/Music Director Paul Lindley II as Jack Frost, changing the colors of the autumn leaves

Not only have Aldamuy and Lindley created the material for their first original musical, they are also involved in this production. Aldamuy has devised crisp choreography for numbers such as “Reindeer Tango” as well as providing stage management expertise. As Jack Frost, Lindley captivates the audience with his agile antics and impressive singing voice, evident in “Jack’s Ballad” among other strong musical numbers. Julian Deleon provides a comforting paternal presence as Chris Kringle, thus achieving another successful foray on the CCT stage. Rachel Arling (Christine Kringle, and - full disclosure - a contributor to Jasper), Carol Beis (Isis Frost), and Charley Krawczyk (Ike Frost) energize their scenes with appealing performances, while Kaitlyn Fuller portrays Crystal with vivacity and charm. Anthony Harvey plays the dual roles of Old Man Winter and Elf; his impish Elf becomes the show’s comedic engine. My preschool son’s belly laughs testified to Harvey’s hilarious and skillful portrayal, not to mention the kid’s desire to imitate some of the Elf’s inventive shenanigans. (At certain performances, Toni V. Moore plays Isis Frost, Jerryanna Williams plays Crystal Kringle, and Lee O. Smith plays Chris Kringle.)

(L-R) Kaitlyn Fuller, Julian Deleon, Rachel Arling, Anthony

Costume design (Donna Harvey and Stevenson), scenic artistry (Jim Litzinger, Stevenson, D. Harvey and A. Harvey), and sound design (Lindley) maintain the high standards of artistic quality that distinguish CCT performances. Distinctive color palettes work effectively to differentiate the worlds of Frost and Kringle, especially through the superb costuming choices. Matt Wright (Sound Technician) and Brandi Smith (Light Board Operator) also provide valuable technical support.

It is a credit to the community’s enthusiasm for CCT that a brand new and unknown work can draw a packed house similar to audiences that attend more familiar plays. My first grade daughter is always eager to go whenever I suggest a trip to CCT. Show title, genre, characters?  No concerns of hers; she is just elated at the prospect of another show. You see, my daughter – like so many of us in Columbia – trusts that whatever production she sees at CCT, she will have a great experience. Thank goodness for the extraordinary talents at Columbia Children’s Theatre for their vision and artistry. We can’t wait to see what they dream up next.

~ Melissa Swick Ellington

 

The world premiere of Jack Frost continues through this Sunday, Dec. 14, with morning, matinee, and evening performances.  For ticket information, call (803) 691-4548 or visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/jack-frost/.  And don't forget - there's also Late Night (i.e. 8 PM rather than 7 PM) Date Night for Mom and Dad on Friday, December 12, and when the kids are away, the actors will play!  The cast performs the same script, but loosen up and bring out double (and triple) entendres for a riotous evening of PG-13-ish fun.  This is an unpredictable evening of fun and surprises that is pretty much guaranteed to make you say, "I can't believe they got away with that in a Children's Theatre!" Recommended for ages 17 and up.  And while 8:00 may be late for Children's Theatre folk, it's still early enough (since the show only runs one hour) that you can head out into the night for more fun, in a great mood, after having laughed yourself silly!  For more info or tickets, visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/event/late-night-jack-frost/

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Holiday Shows A-Plenty Across Midlands Stages

christmasbells2 There's no shortage of seasonal favorites to be found around town.  The winter holidays are all about tradition; as days grow shorter, darker, and colder, we're comforted by what is familiar.  Local theatres are no exception, offering revivals of yuletide favorites, as well as productions of classics from the screen and stage.  Here are just a few!

The Waltons was a huge hit on television, but in Earl Hamner's novels and on the big screen, they were the Spencers, and Hamner adapted his memories of growing up in rural Virginia into a stage play as well.  Narrated by Clay-Boy Spencer, The Homecoming recalls a pivotal Christmas, a missing father, and lean times during the Depression. Lexington's Village Square Theatre returns with this favorite from a few seasons ago for one weekend only, December 4-7. MonaLisa Botts directs; for information, call 803-359-1436, or visit http://www.villagesquaretheatre.com.

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Similar small town warmth and values, filtered through a quirkier Southern Gothic perspective, earned Pamela Parker a Pulitzer nomination for her play Second Samuel.  West Columbia's On Stage Productions is reviving their successful production from earlier this year.  The Jasper review of that production said "like Steel Magnolias, the local ladies gather to chat at the beauty parlor, while the men convene at 'Frisky’s Bait and Brew,' the kind of place where you can get a Nehi and a Moon Pie as easily as a cold beer or a shot of whiskey...(The play) can be enjoyed at face value as a variation on Mayberry or Vicky Lawrence’s Momma’s Family, or taken at a much deeper level."

SecondSamuel2014-HolidayShow_pages Most of director Robert Harrelson's cast return, including Debra Leopard, MJ Maurer, Courtney Long, Anne Merritt Snider, Courtney Long, Sam Edelson, and Antoine T. Marion.  Run dates are December 4-13; for information, call 407-319-2596, or visit http://www.onstagesc.com/.  There will also be a special staged reading of the sequel, A Very Second Samuel Christmas  on Saturday, December 6, with the playwright in attendance - your chance to give feedback on a new  work in progress!

Town Theatre is also bringing back a popular hit, the stage adaptation by David Ives and Paul Blake of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. Based on the 1954 film, this musical, nominated for multiple Tony and Drama Desk Awards, is directed and choreographed by Shannon Willis Scruggs, with musical direction by Sharon McElveen Altman.  Frank Thompson and Scott Vaughan play Army buddies who stage a show at a quaint Vermont inn, encountering show biz shenanigans and romantic entanglements with Abigail Ludwig and Celeste Mills along the way.   Joining them are Bill DeWitt, Kathy Hartzog, Parker Byun, Andy Nyland, and Bob Blencowe;  the show continues this week, closing with a matinee on Sunday, December 7, and you can find a review at Onstage Columbia.

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Two other special performances are also scheduled for holiday fun. First,  Jamie Carr Harrington directs  Disney’s Sleeping Beauty - Kids, the culmination of her Fall Youth Program.  This timeless classic will magic its way into your heart this holiday season. There will be music and dancing, as well as magic spells and evil curses.  Maleficent crashes little Aurora’s Christening party, and places a curse on the baby simply because she was not invited. A urora is whisked away to the woods where she lives for 16 years.  Once upon a dream she meets a handsome stranger, who ends up being the prince who will break the spell with true love’s kiss. Come see Town Theatre’s Youth Program bring a little magic now to the stage, with ayoung beauty who pricks her finger on a spindle and falls asleep due to a curse. There will be fun bumbling fairies, happy woodland creatures, and fantastical goons. (Gotta love fantastical goons! ~ ed.) The show runs Dec. 12-14, with multiple matinee and evening performances.
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Also, Jasper Theatre Artist of the Year Finalist Frank Thompson directs A Christmas Carol Columbia - a new version of the Dickens novella, presented live on stage as a radio play, and written by James Kirk. (The author, not the captain.) This special performance will be presented just one, at 3 PM on Sunday, Dec. 21st.  For ticket information on all three productions, call 803-799-2510, or visit www.towntheatre.com.

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The St. Paul’s Players are presenting  The Fourth Wise Man, a musical adaptation of the short story “The Other Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933), an author, educator, and clergyman who is credited with writing the lyrics for “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.”  The Fourth Wise Man is the story of Artaban, portrayed by Jim Jarvis.  Other cast members are John Arnold, Brenda Byrd, Olin Jenkins, Randy Nolff, Mark Wade, and Valerie Ward.  Artaban, one of the Magi who has studied the stars, endeavors to journey with Caspar, Melchoir, and Balthazar to pay tribute to the Christ Child. He carries three gifts, a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl; however, during his travels he faces tests and challenges. What happens when he finally has the chance to meet Jesus face-to-face?

The St. Paul’s Players' production of The Fourth Wise Man will be presented in the Good Shepherd Theatre at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, on the corner of Bull and Blanding Streets in downtown Columbia.  A dinner theatre performance will be held on Friday, December 5 at 6 p.m.  The cost is $10.00 per person, with advance reservations required. Call (803) 779-0030 to make reservations.  Two more performances will be held on Saturday, December 6 at 3 p.m. andat  7 p.m. There is no cost for the Saturday performances and no required reservations. For more information, contact John W. Henry, Producer, at 803-917-1002, or Paula Benson, Director, at 803-206-4965.
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Trustus Theatre found great success last year with Patrick Barlow's post-modern adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which remained faithful to the original Dickens material, while incorporating technical wizardry, live music enhanced with synthesizer effects, and sexy, steampunk-influenced costumes for the Ghosts.  You can read the Jasper review of that production here,  but there have been a few changes for this year's iteration, with Kendrick Marion joining Director Chad Henderson and last year's cast, including Catherine Hunsinger, Avery Bateman, Scott Herr,  and Stann Gwynn as Scrooge. The show runs through December 20 on the Thigpen Main Stage.

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Trustus also has a couple of special events scheduled this month. First,  late nights are back with The Ladies of Lady Street Late Night Cabaret, featuring the best in female impersonation. Join a highly entertaining quartet of both local and guest performers on Friday December 12th at 11:00pm.  The hour-long show features an entertaining mix of female impersonation, celebrity illusions, showgirl costumes, comedy, glamour and live singing. Vista Queen Emeritus Patti O’Furniture leads a cast that features Dorae Saunders (as seen on “America’s Got Talent” and former Miss US of A at Large),  the live singing talents of Denise Russell, and Veronica La Blank (Columbia’s Wild Card of Drag.) This is the second offering of a series of four shows during Trustus’ 30th season. The show takes place on the Thigpen Mainstage;    tickets are $20 each and can be purchased online at www.trustus.org or at the door.  Doors open at 10:45pm after the evening performance of A Christmas Carol. The show is at 11:00pm. The Trustus bar will open at 10:45pm and will remain open during the show. Or, make a night of it, and check out the Trustus production of A Christmas Carol that same night at 8pm. Tickets for that show are also available online.

Mark Rapp, appearing at Trustus Theatre

Then get ready for Jingle Bell Jazz, featuring the Mark Rapp Quartet and special guests on  December 17th.  Celebrated jazz trumpeter Mark Rapp and his quartet present a grooving, swinging, funky fun Christmas concert that will leave you toasty, warm and happy for the holidays. Rapp has prepared unique jazz arrangements of such Christmas classics as: Angels We Have Heard on High, Jolly Old St. Nicholas, O Come All Ye Faithful, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer to Wham!’s Last Christmas.Rapp has performed with such distinct artists from Branford Marsalis to Hootie and the Blowfish, released 5 diverse recordings, and is featured leading and playing the closing track of Disney’s "Everybody Wants to be a Cat" CD which also features such artists as Dave Brubeck and Esperanza Spalding. Mark is a featured artist in Mellen Press' "How Jazz Trumpeters Understand Their Music" among a prestigious list including Terence Blanchard, Lew Soloff, Freddie Hubbard, Tim Hagans, Dave Douglas and more. Mark has performed in jazz festivals around the world from the Fillmore Jazz Festival, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, WC Handy Festival, to Jazz Festivals in Switzerland, Croatia and Brazil.  The concert performance will begin at 9pm. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased from www.trustus.org.  For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732 .

mistletoe Theatre Rowe is presenting  Murder Under the Mistletoe at both its Columbia and Lexington locations: Scheduled dates are:

Lexington: December 4-7, 11-14, 18-21

Columbia: December 6, 7, 11, 12, 18, 19, 21

For information, call 803-200-2012, or visit http://scdinnertheatre.com.

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Shakespeare's Kidz, the youth program of the South Carolina Shakespeare Company, presents MidWinter's Eve: A Shakespeare's Kidz Tale on December 11th, at 6:00 pm at the Richland Country Library - and it's free!  Written and directed by London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art graduate Katie Mixon, the show is a fun, family friendly, heart-warming inside look at Christmas in Elizabethan England. It's the night before Christmas, when William Shakespeare pops off for some holiday cheer with the wife for the evening. The Shakespeare brood is on their own! Young twins Judith and Hamnet dance, and duel with swords, while Susanna dreams of romance. Friends Emilia, Malvolio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern join the party, with a search for the Yule Log, and visits from The Lord of Misrule!   Will the Shakespeare kids and their friends survive the night, or will chaos trump all?

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Featured in the cast of young performers are Elin Johnson, Joss Kim, Maize Cook, Walt Cook, Napoleon Rodriguez, Guillermo Rodriguez Oliveira, and Lindsay Knowlton.  The perforance is approximately 30 minutes;  you're encouraged to arrive at few minutes early to make your way downstairs and claim a good seat!  For more information, visit   http://www.shakespearesc.org/kidz.html.

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Columbia Children's Theatre presents Jack Frost, the world premiere of a new musical for children, with music by Paul Lindley II, and book and lyrics by Crystal Aldamuy. Run dates are December 5-14.

Something’s up with the weather.  The leaves are turning non-existent colors, unexpected snows are blanketing the orange groves and farmers are getting frost bite in the summer.  What is going on?  Is it global warming?  No, it’s Jack Frost being “creative” again. When Jack’s rebellion and yearning for self-expression start landing him in hot water, his parents The Snow Queen and The Frost King, decide that a little time spent with the industrious and practical Kringle family would teach the head-strong lad a lesson. So, in a move straight out of Trading Spaces, Jack and Crystal Kringle trade lives and suffice it to say cleaning up after reindeer is not exactly Jack’s cup of iced tea.  With a book and lyrics by Crystal-Alisa Aldamuy and music by Paul Gilbert Lindley II this wintry world premiere musical is just the thing to warm your heart!

Show Times:

~ August Krickel

"How I Became a Pirate" is a rollicking good time - Melissa Swick Ellington reviews the new show at Columbia Children's Theatre

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Get on board for a swashbuckling romp at Columbia Children’s Theatre! How I Became A Pirate is a rollicking good time for audiences of all ages. Director Jerry Stevenson and the exceptional cast and crew have created a delightful theatre experience with a crowd-pleasing band of pirates. Based on the book by Melinda Long and Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator David Shannon, this musical features book, music, and lyrics by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman. Kids will enjoy the action-packed plot, adults will snicker over clever wordplay, and everyone will leave the theatre grinning and snarling “Argh!” and “Ahoy, matey!”

Ashlyn Combs as Jeremy Jacob

While digging in the sand, young Jeremy Jacob encounters a raucous bunch of friendly pirates. Audiences will savor lively lessons that range from talking like a pirate to burying treasure. In the most rewarding educational settings, learning is a reflexive process; in this story, Jeremy Jacob is both student and teacher, as he leads the pirates through a tutorial on “soccer by the rules.” The script and lyrics capitalize on word jokes that will tickle audiences both youthful (“poop deck”) and seasoned (rhyming “flamingo” with “Ringo”). How I Became A Pirate allows even the more cautious younger viewers to revel in risk-taking by establishing a base of reliable security. We realize early on that this is no ordinary beach (“yo ho ho and a bottle of sunblock”), yet children are reassured of the boy’s well-being (“We’ll get you home safe and sound”). While kids shriek in gleeful anticipation as pirates invade the audience, they also recognize the fictional nature of the scurvy band. At the performance I attended, one small girl announced, “He’s not a real pirate – he doesn’t even smell bad!”

L-R Julian Deleon, Lee O. Smith, Anthony Harvey, Ashlyn Combs, Brandi Smith, Paul Lindley II, Andy Nyland

Although CCT has staged How I Became A Pirate previously, this production has a new script and music. The sole remaining element from the previous show is actor Lee O. Smith in the role of Captain Braid Beard – and what a marvelous captain Smith becomes. He snarls, grimaces, cajoles, and surprises, leading the energetic ensemble through a polished, exuberant jaunt. Ashlyn Combs demonstrates an appealing singing voice and earnest sincerity in the role of the young boy Jeremy Jacob. Complete with eye patch, beard, plumed hats, and sketchy dental care, the memorable pirate crew features capable performers who take full advantage of the characters’ distinct personalities. Brandi Smith as Maxine reveals a glorious voice and comedic flair, Julian Deleon shines as the congenial Pierre, and Andy Nyland relishes the complexity of Sharktooth, who demonstrates that outward appearances can be misleading. As the playful Seymour, Anthony Harvey delivers a dynamic performance, punctuated by an impressive spiel of pirate lingo. Paul Lindley II as the inimitable Swill is downright hilarious. Is there any role this talented actor can’t play?  With my faithful theatre-going companion (my six-year-old daughter), I have admired Lindley’s remarkable performances in numerous roles at CCT and elsewhere.

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Stevenson stages the musical with skillful wit. Through physical comedy, the actors inhabit a convincing pirate world, as in Jeremy Jacob’s wild steering of the ship. Particular sequences to watch for include the adept “minivan” staging, a fluid soccer game, and a blustery storm at sea. Crystal Aldamuy (Stage Manager and Choreographer), David Quay (Light Board Operator), Matt Wright (Sound Technician), and scenic artists Anthony Harvey, Donna Harvey, Jim Litzinger and Toni Moore collaborate with Stevenson to deliver a top-notch production.

 

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Crisp choreography and excellent vocal quality contribute to the musical’s success. From the opening scene’s impressive sandcastle to the seamless transition into the closing moments, the set design works beautifully to suggest multiple locations and changing moods. Donna Harvey and Stevenson achieve splendid richness in the pirate costumes, melding a vivid color palette with lush textures. Sharktooth’s eye-catching tattoos deserve special mention, along with noteworthy “mop” choreography. As an enthusiastic fan of the original picture book’s illustrator David Shannon (No, David! and Duck on a Bike, anyone?), I wondered how the book’s strong visuals would be interpreted onstage. I was happily delighted with the design team’s unified aesthetic that is both fanciful and functional.

 

pirate2As Stevenson recognizes in the program notes, “Wouldn’t we all like to be swept away on the high seas where there are no jobs, no school, no rules and no bedtimes!” Although the story highlights the delicious prospect of endless amusements and boisterous shenanigans, the comforting allure of dependable family life also emerges. The ensemble finds a powerful balance between comic hijinks and poignant tenderness. Purposeful performances and clarity of direction enhance moments like a wistful ballad on the goodness of home. As my six-year-old explained, “My favorite part was when Jeremy Jacob sang about home because it made me feel happy to think about my home.” In the midst of upbeat humor and captivating storytelling, a shining vein of relatable honesty runs through a genuinely human experience.

While my daughter and I have become accustomed to looking forward to first-rate productions at CCT, this show feels especially terrific. Take it from me, matey: learning how to be a pirate is a fun-filled voyage in this high quality performance at the Columbia Children’s Theatre.

~ Melissa Swick Ellington

Show Times:   Friday, September 26: 8:00 p.m. – Late Night Date Night for adults Saturday, September 27: 10:30 a..m. , 2:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m. (with tickets half-price for the 7 PM show!) Sunday, September 28: 3:00 p.m.

For ticket information, visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/how-i-became-a-pirate/.

A Pirate's Life for ME!

 

 

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/ .

 

"The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fair(l)y (Stoopid) Tales " at Columbia Children's Theatre - a review by Melissa Swick Ellington

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During my years as a drama teacher, I observed that students loved creating “fractured fairy tales” to perform. Taking a well-known story and turning it into something new, usually to humorous effect, was a guaranteed classroom success. Thus, it was a special treat to enjoy the current offering at Columbia Children’s Theatre and to savor audience reactions of surprise and delight. Directed by Jerry Stevenson, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fair(l)y (Stoopid) Tales provides the kind of high quality family production that audiences have come to anticipate from CCT. Adapted by Kent Stephens from the children’s book by Jon Scieszka, with music by Gary Rue, Stinky Cheese Man offers a bright romp through classic stories told in unexpected and uproarious ways. In Scieszka’s Caldecott Honor book (with illustrations by Lane Smith), the title story spoofs the Gingerbread Man, “Cinderumplestiltskin” parodies those two enduring characters, and the “Really Ugly Duckling” becomes…well, check out this show to see (and laugh) for yourself.

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The capable cast and crew members bring the comical tales to life with energy and wit. At the performance I attended, children were riveted by the engaging ensemble. B. Scott Vaughan as Jack (of beanstalk fame) guides the viewers through the theatrical experience. Vaughan’s inviting stage presence makes audience members feel like they are part of the journey.  Lee O. Smith creates a sly Foxy Loxy, whose mischievous interactions with Toni V. Moore’s vivacious Little Red Hen ignite lively shenanigans. Julian Deleon delivers a dynamic turn as the obnoxious stepmother to Evelyn Clary’s charming albeit detail-obsessed Cinderella. Elizabeth Stepp revs up the comedy as Rumplestiltskin and the frog princess, while Paul Lindley II becomes the marvelously boisterous and unforgettable Stinky Cheese Man himself. Not only does stage manager Crystal Aldamuy keep the action flowing offstage, she also joins in the hijinks onstage as a helpful Pinocchio.

(L-R) Toni V. Moore, Paul Lindley II, Scott Vaughn, Lee O. Smith, Elizabeth Stepp, Julian Deleon, Evelyn Clary

Costume design choices by Stevenson and Donna Harvey evoke familiar characters with an inventive twist. In particular, the Stinky Cheese Man’s garb proves to be downright hilarious, producing roars of laughter from audience members. Stevenson and Jim Litzinger provide clean, reliable sound and lighting choices. Clever choreography by Aldamuy punctuates key moments, while Lindley’s valuable music direction drives effective vocal performances. Physical humor abounds in this production, with a fast forward/pause/play sequence sending my young daughter and her friend into fits of giggles. My kindergartener recommends, “Kids should come see this show because it is funny and silly!”

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Rather than retread timeworn ground by retelling the same old yarns, these theatre artists aim to “change it, derange it, do anything but bore us.” And do they ever succeed: traditional characters embrace the Giant’s declaration of “fee fi fum fory” to make up “my own story.” Stinky Cheese Man imparts the delightful message that established narratives can be reinvented and infused with vibrant originality. By sharing this well-crafted production, CCT may inspire young audience members to create their own imaginative versions of well-known stories. Why stop at “once upon a time” when you can try “time upon a once”?

~ Melissa Swick Ellington

StinkyCheese-Poster-webThere are three more days to catch The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fair(l)y (Stoopid) Tales:

- Friday, April 4: 8:00 p.m. (which is a Late Night (ok, CCT shows generally start at 7 PM, so this is late for them!) Date Night for Mom and Dad, and young-at-heart adults.  There will be a cash bar available, so if you don't have kids, or just want a night out on your own, do not miss this performance. - Saturday, April 5: 10:30 a.m., 2:00 p.m., 7:00 pm. - Sunday, April 6: 3:00 p.m.

For ticket information, call (803) 691-4548, or visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com.

"Puss in Boots" is the cat's meeow! A review of the new show at Columbia Children's Theatre

boots1 Columbia Children’s Theatre brings back a hit play from their very first season, and audiences will enjoy a wild and clever journey with the current production of Puss in Boots. The lively tale chronicles the adventures of a suave cat and his master Tom as adapted from the original Perrault story by director Jerry Stevenson. In Stevenson’s version, Puss and friends cavort through the Old South, complete with lavish costumes and splendid scenic elements. Cast and crew deliver high quality performances at CCT, and this solid production is no exception. Children will enjoy sassy Puss in Boots and his companions, relishing the rollicking slapstick humor and broad characterizations, while adults will snicker (and snort, truth be told) over the more sophisticated wordplay.

Columbia’s beloved storyteller Darion McCloud played the title role at the performance I attended. His infectious charisma infuses the character with irresistible charm and saucy swagger. With McCloud at the helm, the entire cast achieves energetic commitment and memorable magnetism. In the central role of Tom, Paul Lindley II creates an appealing character that pursues “riches beyond compare” through a riotous escapade guided by the wily Puss in Boots. Along the way, the pair encounters a vivid assortment of villains and heroes portrayed by top-notch actors, including Denzel Devereaux (Lee O. Smith), Miss Sassafrass St. Simmons (Toni V. Moore), Prissy Pat (Elizabeth Stepp), Voodoo Vickie (Kendal Turner), and Governer O’Grovener (Julian Deleon). Matt Wright and Stepp deliver memorable performances as Tom’s dim-witted brothers Buford and Shuford. Bonita Peeples plays the role of Puss in Boots at certain shows, and her captivating portrayal of several other parts in the performance I attended suggests her certain success in the title role.

(L-R) Julian DeLeon, Darion McCloud, Paul Lindley II

Stevenson (Director) and Evelyn Clary (Assistant Director) have crafted a strong production that looks great and will “wow” audiences. Clever staging, inventive scenic design, and impressive costumes invite viewers into an entertaining version of the Old South. Donna Harvey and Stevenson achieve considerable success with costume design and construction, particularly with many actors playing more than one role. Crew members pull off a complicated production with nary a hitch, thanks to stage manager Crystal Aldamuy and light board operator David Quay.

Julian DeLeon and Darion McCloud

While physical humor abounds in this production, the cunning use of words provides much hilarity as well. McCloud’s rapid delivery of a speedy recap of the entire plot is astonishing. Word-based jokes (“catastrophe,” “catapult,” “catwalk”) appeal to viewers of all ages. During the “chipmunk” sequence, my preschooler laughed himself silly; the kid actually exhausted himself with full-on belly laughs. (Go see the show and you just might do the same.) As the actors keep young audiences engaged with visual surprises, they also challenge children’s minds with thought-provoking words. My six-year-old guffawed at wordplay with “Grovener” and “red rover,” while her parents chuckled at Gone with the Wind references. The convoluted plot can be a bit perplexing to follow, especially during the fast-paced conclusion, but this will not diminish audience affection for Puss in Boots.

Opportunities for audience involvement include children providing Puss and Tom with “gifts for the Governor” as well as more informal moments, such as an onstage drum roll that inspired my four-year-old son to join in with his own impromptu drumming. After a vibrant performance, actors demonstrate admirable energy when interacting with the young audience members during the post-show autograph session. (This “meet and greet” opportunity has become such a highlight for my kindergartener that she now proclaims “Time to get autographs!” during every curtain call.)

Check out Puss in Boots and add a delightful spark of warmth and laughter to your winter weekend. At CCT, theatre artists love kids, and they inspire kids to love the art of theatre. Visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com for ticket information; the show runs through Sun. Feb. 16.

~ Melissa Swick Ellington

"Ho Ho Ho" at Columbia Children's Theatre - a review by Melissa Swick Ellington

hoho3 Ho Ho Ho offers bright and energetic holiday entertainment at Columbia Children’s Theatre.  Designed to engage even the youngest audience members, this production features wacky humor in the custom of British pantomime.   As “panto” embraces audience participation and madcap folly, Ho Ho Ho keeps viewers shouting with gleeful laughter at the silly antics of familiar festive characters.  Father and Mother Christmas (i.e. Santa and Mrs. Claus) face rollicking chaos as they strive to reclaim elusive holiday spirit amid comical mishaps.  Tradition blends with pop culture references as elves cavort to contemporary hit songs. Audience members will enjoy participating in this rowdy ride through pursuit of Christmas magic.  The boisterous comic style of the show embraces broad physical jokes as in vaudeville, including slapstick sequences that may startle some of the youngest viewers, as well as a bit of potty humor that will appeal to a wide cross-section of audience members. (Truth be told, my husband and I laughed even harder than our children did during one particularly memorable sound cue sequence…I bet you’ll know which one if you see the show.)

As directed by Frank Thompson, the production maintains a brisk pace and admirable clarity. Cast members work together in a vibrant, captivating ensemble. In the central role of Father Christmas, Lee O. Smith brings empathy and warmth to his character in the midst of the wild hijinks. Will Moreau as the Musical Elf shares a special talent for mesmerizing the young audience, often without speaking a word. Mother Christmas (Christy Shealy Mills) drives the play’s narrative with vivacity, while the effervescent elves are portrayed with enthusiastic commitment by Elizabeth Stepp and Bill DeWitt. (Andy Nyland serves as understudy for the role of Elf Boy Len).

(L-R) Bill DeWitt, Christy Chealy Mills, Elizabeth Stepp, Will Moreau

As ever with a CCT play, commendable production values are maintained, with sound design by Frank Thompson and costume design by Donna Harvey and Jerry Stevenson. Costumes combine recognizable holiday attire (that iconic red suit) with surprising delights (an ever-changing parade of zany hats). Complex action onstage relies on offstage support; clearly, this production has a superb team in place. Stage manager extraordinaire Jami Steele-Sprankle keeps the mayhem under control and provides effective backstage organization. Sound technician Anthony Harvey delivers praiseworthy precision in the execution of numerous sound cues which are essential to the show’s comedy, while David Quay supplies dependable light board operation.

As a parent, I was particularly gratified by the actors’ knack for nurturing my preschool son’s focus throughout the performance. He was able to engage in the audience-actor transaction of live theatre at a level of understanding that I hadn’t seen from this little boy before. The youngsters in attendance at this matinee performance were charmed by the actors, and became visibly invested in the play’s events.

audience participation

Before the performance, cast and crew members involve children in coloring stocking ornaments and helping to decorate the onstage tree. A gentle approach to audience participation invites eager kids to take part in various opportunities, but does not overwhelm more reserved children. Stick around after the show to meet the cast, get autographs, and take photos. (My daughter observed, “I love when the actors autograph my program at Columbia Children’s Theatre!”)

Early in the performance, my youngest child chortled with laughter after a funny physical sequence and declared, “Ohhhh that is SO silly.” Yes, Ho Ho Ho, scripted by award-winning British children's playwright Mike Kenny, is indeed “so silly,” in the most affirming and affectionate sense of the term. Columbia Children’s Theatre offers our community a comedic gift this holiday season in a fast-paced and cheery romp. Head on over to Ho Ho Ho, jumpstart your holiday spirit, and laugh your cares away with Father Christmas and friends at Columbia Children’s Theatre.

~ Melissa Swick Ellington

 

"The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley" - Melissa Swick Ellington reviews the new show at Columbia Children's Theatre

stanley-logo1With a charming production of The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley, Columbia Children’s Theatre brings to life a beloved character and his exciting escapades. I first learned about Flat Stanley when my visiting aunt arrived in South Carolina with a cutout of the character, which she photographed in various places for a grandchild’s school project. Decades later, I enjoyed sharing the “original adventures” book by Jeff Brown with my young daughter, indulging in a sense of wonder at the wide world and its possibilities. The whimsical nature of the Flat Stanley book series inspires lasting affection in readers; Columbia Children’s Theatre crafts a surprising and delightful world that entices theatregoers. As realized in the musical (with book by Timothy Allen McDonald and music and lyrics by McDonald, David Weinstein, Jonathan K. Waller, and Stephen Gabriel), the Lambchop parents enjoy a cozy family life with Stanley and his younger brother Arthur. After bedtime, the two boys take the audience on an exuberant “I wish I were” romp through cherished adventures (think Harry Potter and Star Wars) complete with light sabers and air guitar.  Stanley’s “star wish” leads to his dimensional transformation after a fateful encounter with a mysterious bulletin board.  He learns that the life of a “flat kid” has drawbacks (getting stuck in a tree when flown as a kite) as well as perks (mailing himself to Paris.)  Clever wordplay transpires in the script, such as the “porkchop” versus “lambchop” confusion that delighted my daughter.   Characters advise young audiences to “find a little adventure,” “write a letter and drop it in the mail,” and “make a star wish.”

Anthony Harvey as Stanley achieves genuine commitment to a child role without condescension, a true gift of a performance. He shares talents in physical comedy (the hilarious doctor’s exam) as well as an appealing voice, with a particularly poignant song while stuck in a tree.  Harvey handles the flat costume with admirable confidence – who knew Flat Stanley could shake maracas and rock a time step, not to mention a kickline? As Arthur, Riley Smith dives into exuberant antics that delight the young audience; he avoids caricature by offering lovable honesty and real sweetness. Actors demonstrate versatility in diverse roles: Evelyn Clary plays a wacky postal worker and a serene Mona Lisa, while Julian DeLeon moves convincingly from sincere father to bumbling physician to flashy entertainer.  Diane Gilbert, Rachel Glowacki, David Quay, Imani Ross-Jackson, and Elizabeth Stepp give vibrant portrayals of various characters that develop depth through nuanced ensemble work. Two different casts share the roles; additional performers are sure to be equally strong in a production of this caliber.    (That second cast includes David Quay as Stanley, Ruth Glowacki as Mrs. Lambchop, Toni Moore as Mr. Lambchop, Elizabeth Stepp as Stanley’s brother Arthur, and Taylor- Noelle Hammond as Mrs. Cartero.)

Meet the Lambchops - clockwise from top: Anthony Harvey, Diane Gilbert, Riley Smith, and Julian DeLeon.

“Why say it when I can show you in an extravagant musical number?” asks a Hollywood character; engaging songs and dances illuminate Stanley’s world with infectious vitality. Cindy Flach directs and choreographs her talented cast with creativity and ingenuity, and Paul Lindley II guides enjoyable singing voices with skillful music direction. The design team (Donna Harvey and Jim Litzinger) proves that Columbia Children’s Theatre really can take us anywhere: characters travel through the Lambchop home, a park, a doctor’s office, California, Paris, and Hawaii.  Lambchop family members’ costumes and even their tabletop décor reflect a patriotic red, white, and blue motif.   Forgotten lollipops stuck on top of the bulletin board illustrate the designers’ meticulous approach; details like these bring a child’s world alive onstage.  Go see the show to find out how acting, directing, and design can collaborate on laugh-out-loud visual comedy with particular effectiveness in Stanley’s museum experience.  CCT shows last season included marvelous puppetry (Knuffle Bunny, Goodnight Moon); Anthony Harvey’s puppet design maintains this high standard.  Stage managers Ruth Mock and Susan Hitt keep the backstage domain moving with fast-paced fluidity and seamless transitions. Visual effects are very well done, especially the picture frame imagery and the lasting impact of Stanley’s unique and astonishing flatness.

But what do the kids think? The children at the matinee I attended were rapt with attention throughout the show.  Light saber hijinks, surf music and “wipe-out” moves, sharp and sassy tap dancing, surprising mailbox revelations, and exciting pursuit of the “sneak thief” proved riveting for even the smallest viewer.  My own five-year-old daughter, while skeptical before the big transformation (“Is Stanley REALLY going to be flat onstage?”), became firmly convinced of the production’s integrity: “My favorite part was when Flat Stanley got flat. I really love and appreciate this show. I think kids will like the show because it is cheerful.”

The mind-opening power of travel, discovery of adventure through sending and receiving mail, and lasting love of family will resonate with audiences of all ages. Through the ongoing development of Columbia Children’s Theatre, Artistic Director Jerry Stevenson, Managing Director Jim Litzinger, and their collaborators make our city a better place – to learn as part of a welcoming community, to raise a family, to love the arts. Thriving theatre for young audiences produced with gratifying commitment to quality in all areas: who could ask for anything more?

The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley runs through this Sunday, September 29. Call the box office at (803) 691-4548, or visit www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com for ticket information.

~ Melissa Swick Ellington

 

 

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.

rapunzel

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.

Rapunzel (2)

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/ .

 

 

 

 

"Knuffle Bunny - A Cautionary Musical" - Alex Smith reviews the new play at Columbia Children's Theatre

Mo Willems is something of a rock star if you’re a kid between the ages of 4 and 11 (or even if you’re just the parent of a kid that age.)  His career in children’s entertainment began illustriously on Sesame Street, where as an animator and writer he won six Emmy awards between 1993 and 2002.  During that time he also created two animated television series, The Off-Beats and Sheep In The Big City.  Since 2003, he has been a wildly successful author of children’s books, introducing the world to such immortal characters as Cat the CatPiggie and Elephant, Edwina, The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, Leonardo The Terrible Monster, Naked Mole Rat and Big Frog.   His lovely illustrations and easy storytelling simultaneously create tales whose worlds are complex and self-contained, yet are wrought in such a simple way that the lessons they teach are so subtle that you don’t feel like you’re being beaten over the head with them.   Above all his writing and his drawings are VERY funny, making them a joy for both children and adults. All of the same qualities which make Willems’ books so appealing are on full display in the Columbia Children’s Theatre’s musical staging of Knuffle Bunny, subtitled A Cautionary Musical.  With book and lyrics by Willems and music by Michael Silversher, this adaptation of the Caldecott Medal-winning adventures of the beloved stuffed animal of the title, Trixie (the toddler who loves the bunny), and Trixie’s Mom and Dad, is staged as confidently as ever by director Chad Henderson, whose genre-defying talent as a theatrical director shines in this family-friendly production.   Henderson, as usual, has brought together a cast and crew whose talent coalesces to create a brisk, wonderfully entertaining evening in the theatre for children and their grown-ups alike.

This "cautionary tale" is straightforward enough: Dad, in an attempt to give Mom some time to herself, decides to take their daughter Trixie to the laundromat a few blocks from their home in the big city.  Trixie drags along her favorite stuffed animal, Knuffle Bunny. In the process of laundering the family’s clothes, Knuffle Bunny is accidentally put in the washing machine, and not until they return home between cycles does Dad realize what Trixie (who hasn’t learned to speak yet) has been trying to tell him throughout their journey home: Knuffle Bunny has been left behind. Mom, Dad and Trixie all rush back to the laundromat, where Dad embarks on a hero’s journey to recover Trixie’s missing doll. To say that hilarity ensues would cheat all of the above described action of how wildly entertaining and very funny it is.

caption

Mom and Dad are expertly played by Kathy Sykes and Paul Lindley II, respectively. They are portraying archetypes, which can easily be overplayed and stereotypical in lesser hands, but as Mom, Ms. Sykes conveys all the frustration, patience, nurturing and love which mothers exercise with their children (and, often, with the fathers of their children) in such a sincere and earthy way that we laugh at and with her because of the familiarity her portrayal evokes. Lindley as Dad is all bluster and bravado which mask his genuine sensitivity and insecurities about his ability as a parent and a spouse; in other words, he is every dad.  Lindley, in addition to serving as the show's musical director, is a comic actor of immense talent (he was side-splitting as "Snail" in CCT's recent staging of Frog and Toad), and in his hands Dad is the perfect over-serious, overwrought and over-compensating foil to Ms. Sykes’ “straight-man” mom. Their performances, individually and as that archetypal institution of “mom and dad,” are worth the price of admission alone.

And then there’s Trixie. Having an adult play a child onstage is another dangerous proposition: the temptation to over- or under-play the impossibly endless and variant characterizations which make up the earliest eras of childhood make the task a difficult one for any actor...or, as one of the show's songs explains, "Trixie Is Tricky".  Hats off, then, to Sara Jackson, who embodies the pre-verbal toddler Trixie with all of the requisite foibles of a child that age without ever falling into the easy traps of being too cutesy or commenting on them.  The strength of Ms. Jackson's performance lies in the fact that despite the fact that, for instance, the role calls upon her to do something as outlandish as speak for 95% of the play in incomprehensible toddler-speak, she takes Trixie as seriously as an actor would take any adult role. This not only makes her character completely clear and interesting, it allows her to nearly bring down the house with laughter when she delivers, with straight-faced sincerity, a ballad about her troubles whose lyrics consist of no recognizable human language. It is a high point of the show.

There are so many other elements which make Knuffle Bunny such an excellent show: the hard work of a fine ensemble of actor/puppeteers (Julian Deleon, Anthony Harvey, Brandi Smith and Christina Whitehouse-Suggs) who play multiple roles and are particularly wonderful in a scene where Dad does battle with some troublesome clothes in an attempt to find Knuffle Bunny; Donna Harvey's costume and puppet design which ably bring those troublesome clothes, Knuffle Bunny, and all the other characters, animate or not, to colorful life; Baxter Engle's superb projections, which build upon Willems' own layout in the Knuffle Bunny books, creating a living backdrop out of actual photographs of New York city and otherwise broadening the staging possibilities in the Children's Theatre's modest space (this may be the first production in Columbia to stage a musical number inside a washing machine); and, of course, a cameo appearance by Willems' other Caldecott Honoree, the troublesome Pigeon - in the form of an excellent marionette, designed and built by Lyon Hill - who in the play's final moments literally "steals the show," and opens up the welcome possibility that this may not be the end of Knuffle Bunny's stage adventures...

The Columbia Children's Theatre's top-notch production of Knuffle Bunny is so well-crafted and performed, that it makes the prospect of further musical journeys with Mom, Dad, Trixie and Knuffle Bunny a tantalizing prospect indeed. It is the best kind of family entertainment around, and it should not be missed.

~ Alex Smith

Knuffle Bunny - A Cautionary Musical runs Friday, April 19th at 7:00 PM, Saturday, April 20th at 10:30 AM, 2:00 PM, and 7:00 PM, and a final matinee Sunday, April 21st, at 3:00 PM.  For ticket in formation, visit their website, or call (803) 691-4548.

An Ode to Toad, and a Dialogue with Frog: "A Year with Frog and Toad" - a Ribbiting Production at Columbia Children’s Theatre! Plus: the return of celebrity guest blogger Kat Bjorn (age 5)

If you only have time to read the first paragraph, let me make this simple:  unless you are the bride and groom in a wedding, or have the misfortune of attending your own funeral these next two weekends, move whatever scheduling mountains you must — no matter your age — to attend A Year with Frog and Toad at Columbia Children’s Theatre. Frog and Toad are sacred characters who define our contemporary storytelling selves, not just for children, but for parents and anyone else who later in life relearns the critical import of children’s tales.  Arnold Lobel’s kinetic Frog and sourpuss Toad, and their whimsical, parable adventures, have become for millions of readers a canonical definition of storybook friendship — perhaps no less important than Gilgamesh and Enkidu, only with a wee biteen more emphasis on tea and cookies.

Thus, one has to imagine that any children’s theatre approaches the staging of the groundbreaking 2003 musical adaptation of nine priceless vignettes from Lobel’s four Frog and Toad books with the gravitas of a classical company staging King Lear.  (For those unaware, the musical, commissioned by Lobel’s daughter, cracked the mainstream Broadway barrier after initial successful runs in Minneapolis and Off-Broadway.)  Indeed, this production was enough to draw Artistic Director Jerry Stevenson out from under the lily pads and onto the stage for his first main role since co-founding Columbia Children’s Theatre.  This alone is cause for celebration, as Stevenson nails every warty jot and tittle of Toad’s reluctant, crepe-hanger personality.  Given the adult audience members’ uniform delight in Stevenson’s performance, one sincerely hopes that he will consider lending his comedic and singing talents to other roles about town in the years to come.

One simply cannot heap enough praise onto the entire cast and crew for possibly pulling off the best children’s show in the history of our famously hot town, and the show I have most enjoyed attending since the legendary production of Ragtime at Workshop nearly a decade ago.  I still feel the warmth of theatrical mirth hours after the curtains closed, and I am sincerely jealous that my daughter, Kat (see interview with cast below), will have the opportunity to attend a second performance with her school next week.

Of particular thespian note, one must congratulate veteran children’s theatre actor Lee O. Smith for a frolicking, amphibian performance as Frog that seems to have been plucked from a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope “Road to” film.  Also, Elizabeth Stepp again demonstrates requisite talent in anthropomorphic animal roles, in particular as the crocheted-Mohawk Lizard; she brings such animation to her characters that at times one finds her nearly a full time zone ahead of anyone else on stage.  Finally, Paul Lindley II and his crisp voice nearly bring the show to a halt — literally — as the postal-laden Snail, who, inch by inch throughout, ties together all of the separate narrative threads.

While the Columbia Children’s Theatre stage itself may be humble (yet deserving of ‘amphi’-theatrical size), the company’s creative team really has outdone itself.  Jim Litzinger’s daisy-and-cattail, woodsy stage truly brings the storybook backdrop to life.  But the success of any show with animal characters hangs in the creative balance of its costumes, and the team of Stevenson and Donna Harvey seems to have raided with abandon Plato’s World of Forms for an abundance of imaginative ideas, from Frog and Toad’s outrageous argyle socks, to Turtle’s straw hat shell, to the umbrella puppets in the ghost story vignette, “Shivers.”  Then there’s Toad’s bathing suit, which out of respect for his metamorphic modesty, I shan’t discuss.

One final shout out is deserving of local face-painting artist, Sarah Dippity, who donated her time on opening night to turning dozens of kiddy faces into a colorful collage of butterflies, Darth Mauls, princesses, and Iron Man masks.

A reviewer knows that he cannot cash the following chip lightly:  I really cannot think of a time I have enjoyed myself more in a Columbia theatre.  More importantly, I know that my five-year-old daughter and dozens of other children on Friday night felt precisely the same way.

One final word:  Go.  Or as Snail might put it:  Escargot.

~ Arik Bjorn

Kat Bjorn’s Interview with Frog & Toad

 

KB:  Why is it “frog and toad” and not “toad and frog”?

Toad:  Alphabetical order.  I’m pretty sure “F” comes before “T.”

[cast sings “the alphabet song” in somewhat accurate fashion—amazingly so, in fact, for a group of minimally-educated woodland creatures.]

KB:  I picked up a toad once, and it felt lumpy-bumpy.  Toad, are you lumpy-bumpy?

Toad:  Definitely.  Definitely lumpy-bumpy.

KB:  How did you come up with your Frog voice and your Toad voice?

Toad:  That is my default Cowardly Lion voice.

Frog:  I obsessively watched the TV show “Frasier.”

KB:  [coughs]  What’s it like to be amphibians?

Toad:  It’s very convenient when traveling.

Frog:  Absolutely.  Over land and water.  Very handy.

KB:  In the story “Cookies,” we don’t know what kind of cookies they are.  Are they bug and fly cookies?

Bird:  The song is very clear.  They are Marvelous Cookies.

Snail:  With a touch of honeysuckle nectar, I think.

Lizard:  And mealworms.  Ooh, yeah.  Yum, yum.  Mealworms.

KB:  That is disgusting.  Next question.  In the story “Spring,” why did Frog trick Toad with the calendar pages?

Frog:  What?!  I didn’t trick him!

KB:  [coughs; clears throat]  Yes you did!  And you threw it in the fireplace!

Toad:  You tricked me, Frog?!  You owe me a calendar.  I’m not speaking to you again.

KB:  In the story “A Swim,” how does a turtle sound when it laughs?  Turtles don’t make sounds!

[cast is stumped.  sound of non-equity crickets.]

KB:  In the story “The Letter,” why didn’t Frog just deliver the letter himself instead of giving it to Snail?

Toad:  We were in desperate need of an 11 o’clock number.

Snail:  And I delivered!

KB:  [coughs]  Last question.  Have Frog and Toad known each other since they were tadpoles?

Toad:  [points to a portrait on the wall]  We’re related, actually.  Those are our ancestors in the painting “American Frog-thic.”

Frog:  Say, that’s quite the cough you have there, kid.

KB:  I know.  I have a frog in my throat.

Frog and Toad runs February 8-17 with performances at the following dates and time:  Friday, February 8 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, February 9 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, February 10 at 3 p.m.; Friday, February 15 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, February 16 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; and Sunday, February 17 at 3 p.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/ .

Marauding Zombies, Playful Amphibians, and That Mofo With the Hat - What to See on Stage This Weekend

George Romero's low-budget, cult hit from 1968, Night of the Living Dead, was the granddaddy of all modern zombie stories. Zombies had been around before, but were usually depicted as corpses animated by some controlling voodoo master. Romero took the basic idea of hordes of the undead from Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, made them less vampires and more corpse-like, yet still eager to chomp your flesh and turn you into one of them, and his world-view of a zombie apocalypse took off, influencing everything from the Resident Evil and Silent Hill video games, to director John Landis's classic video for the Michael Jackson song "Thriller," to the current hit comic book and cable tv series The Walking Dead. We're still fond of this exchange from the Joss Whedon-produced series Angel, written by Steven S. DeKnight (now the show-runner for Spartacus) : CONNOR (Angel's mortal son, who hates him): He looks dead.

ANGEL (the "good" vampire with a soul) : He is dead. Technically, it's undead. It's a zombie.

CONNOR: What's a zombie?

ANGEL: It's an undead thing.

CONNOR: Like you?

ANGEL: No, zombies are slow-moving, dimwitted things that crave human flesh.

CONNOR: Like you.

ANGEL: No! It's different. Trust me.

Zombies are all the rage in Columbia too, with an annual Zombie Walk (Crawl? Lurch?) each Hallowe'en. High Voltage Theatre is currently producing a stage adaptation of the original Romero film, running this weekend and the next, Friday and Saturday nights, through Sat. Feb. 15th, at the Tapp's Art Center on Main Street. For information or reservations, call: 803-754-5244. And you can read a review at the Free Times.

Over at Richland Mall in Forest Acres, Columbia Children's Theatre is opening their new production of A Year With Frog and Toad, the Tony-nominated (seriously!) musical by Robert and Willie Reale, based on Arnold Lobel's series of children's books. The cast includes local favorites such as Jerry Stevenson, Lee O. Smith, Bobby Bloom, Sara Jackson, Paul Lindley II (doubling as musical director) Toni Moore, and Elizabeth Stepp (who also choreographs.)

From press material:

Arnold Lobel's well-loved characters hop from the page to the stage in A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD, the Theatre of Young Audiences version of Tony-nominated musical. This whimsical show follows two great friends -- the cheerful, popular Frog and the rather grumpy Toad -- through four, fun-filled seasons. Waking from hibernation in the Spring, Frog and Toad plant gardens, swim, rake leaves, go sledding, and learn life lessons along the way. The two best friends celebrate and rejoice in their differences that make them unique and special. Part vaudeville, part make believe, all charm, A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD tells the story of a friendship that endures, weathering all seasons.

The show runs through Sun. Feb. 17th; contact the box office at (803) 691-4548 for information.

Meanwhile, down in the Vista, Trustus Theatre opens Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherf@*#&er With the Hat, directed by Chad Henderson, with a score by Preach Jacobs, scenic design by Kimi Maeda, and featuring Alexis Casanovas, Shane Silman, Raia Jane Hirsch, Michelle Jacobs, and Joe Morales.

From press material:

ADULTS ONLY PLEASE: language, nudity, sexual situations, & violence

"This sexy and modern show was nominated for Tony Awards, Drama League Awards, Outer Critics Circle Awards, and Drama Desk Awards – TRUST US, it’s more than the title that’s provocative about this show."

Struggles with addiction, friendship, love and the challenges of adulthood are at the center of the story. Jackie, a petty drug dealer, is just out of prison and trying to stay clean. He's also still in love with his coke-addicted childhood sweetheart, Veronica. Ralph D. is Jackie's too-smooth, slightly slippery sponsor. He's married to the bitter and disaffected Victoria, who, by the way, has the hots for Jackie. And then there's Julio, Jackie's cousin … a stand-up, "stand by me" kind of guy. However, when Jackie comes home with flowers to find a strange man’s hat by his and Veronica’s bed, these characters careen forward as Jackie goes in search of the hat’s owner. What follows is an examination of trust, lust, loyalty, and true love.

You can read an interview with director Chad Henderson here.  Contact the box office at (803) 254-9732 for ticket information.

Goodnight Moon at Columbia Children’s Theatre: An Udderly Mush-See Lunar Odyssey - A review by Arik Bjorn (plus a special interview with the cast by guest blogger Kat Bjorn, age 4)

Doubtless I am one of millions of parents who have read aloud Margaret Wise Brown’s classic bedtime tale, Goodnight Moon, at the conclusion of a marathon parenting day in soft, poetic fashion, a nocturne prelude to my child’s sojourn into sleep.  Our interpretations were all wrong; my eyes have now seen the moonlight thanks to writer Chad Henry and Columbia Children’s Theatre (CCT) artistic director Jerry Stevenson.  Instead, the cute gray Bunny, tucked under the green blanket and played with exquisite, thumping animation by Paul Lindley II, is no less a precocious daydreamer than Maurice Sendak’s Max.

Why we parents were so easily duped remains a mystery.  After all, what child’s bedroom is replete with a fireplace, telephone, tiger skin rug and 19th-century French mantel clock?  Parental instinct should have told us something was going on.

Transferring a timeless, if not somewhat abstract, classic children’s story into an engaging musical is a daunting theatre challenge.  (I would rather be charged with turning Coriolanus into a ballet.)  But foremost props—pun intended—should be lavished upon the CCT set design team of Jim Litzinger, Patrick Faulds, Donna Harvey & Co.  Immediately upon entering the auditorium, one is presented with a vibrant, life-size mirror image of illustrator Clement Hurd’s nocturnal bedroom world.  By the time the metaphorical curtain rises, patrons of all ages are convinced they are inside the pages of a cosmos where all the universe’s inanimate objects are accorded equal rights to a kind goodnight.  So well-crafted is this stage that neither children nor adults suspect that it is about to spring to life, including choreographed argyle socks, gyrating lampstands, trap door frames, literal clock faces, prankish blankets, and an anthropomorphic telephone that scared me into thinking it was a green version of comedian Carrot Top.

For every child, hare or human, bedtime is a diurnal odyssey in which the 60-minute period between hitting the sack and falling asleep leads to under-the-covers-flashlight adventure—no matter how many times Old Lady Bunny appears to operatically croon, “HUSH!”  While parents are pleasantly amused by the night-time imagination of Bunny, every child in the audience will likely consider the events on stage a familiar evening occurrence in his or her bedroom.  What’s so unusual about wall pictures coming to life and breaking into a Fosse chair and tap number?  Or dolls in the dollhouse crying out to their master?  Or a hula-hooping mouse?

The between-the-lines key to every successful children’s show in this genre is of course a sufficient number of adult-targeted puns and slapstick gags—of which this show has no shortage, thanks to the cross-dressing antics of Lee O. Smith as a hirsute bovine and balding tooth fairy.  Another key is an audience filled with children who could care less about the cache of candy their parents have lavished upon them, because they are so eager to behold what happens next.  Several times I surveyed the throng of crisscross applesauce-seated children and saw nothing but riveted eyes.

Other performances of note include Elizabeth Stepp as the Bronx vaudevillian “ya-da-da-da-da” Dog; Anthony Harvey and Hannah Mount as the playful Kittens-turned-tap dancing Musical Bears; and Evelyn Clary as the Mouse, which my four-year-old daughter could not stop talking about until her head hit the pillow; then again, her name is Kat.

Director Stevenson once again regales us with a children’s play which is a worthy venture for every Columbia family in the next few weeks—only this time, he has demonstrated a bit of literary magic, proving that every story, even the most seemingly simple, is an open work, as complex in interpretation as all the “looth tooths” in the sky.

~ Arik Bjorn

 .................................................................................................................................

 Kat Bjorn’s Interview with the Cast of Goodnight Moon

KB:  Why is the play called “Goodnight, Moon”?

Cast:  [deep thoughts]  That’s a good one.

KB:  Why is the mouse young?

Mouse:  Are you suggesting I’m old, kid?

KB:  No,  I think you’re a teenager.  [big hug from mouse]  You’re supposed to be four; I’m four, too!

Mouse:  I’ll take teenager.

KB:  What is mush?

Cast:  [more deep thoughts]  It’s like oatmeal but has completely different ingredients.

KB:  Why would the bunny rabbit not go to sleep?

Bunny:  There’s just so much to do!  I don’t want to go to sleep.  I have so much energy!

Director:  He ate chocolate in bed.

KB:  Have you read the book Goodnight Moon?  Did you like it?

Bunny:  I read it as a child.  I really did like it; it was really fun to bring it to life on the stage.

KB:  Do you say goodnight to everything in your house?

Black Kitten:  Yes.

Dog:  Only animate things.

[general commotion]

KB:  Quiet, everybody!  Raise your hand if you say goodnight to everything in your house.

[Black Kitten raises hand timidly]

KB:  Thank you.

Cow:  I do, too.  But I have serious OCD.

KB:  Ahem!  Have you ever eaten mush?

Dog:  I like grits better.  It’s very mushy.  It’s like soggy rice oatmeal.

Director:  It’s actually spray insulation.

 

Goodnight Moon runs September 21-30 with performances at the following dates and time:  Friday, September 21 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, September 22 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, September 23 at 3 p.m.; Friday, September 28 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, September 29 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; and Sunday, September 30 at 3 p.m.  Tickets are $8 for adults and children 3 and up.  The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located in 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/ .