"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

"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

 

 

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

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 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/ .