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: Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type at Columbia Children's Theatre by Melissa Ellington

click Longtime fans as well as newcomers to the children’s book Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type by author Doreen Cronin and illustrator Betsy Lewin will be enchanted by the marvelous production at Columbia Children’s Theatre. Through songs like “Music To My Ears” and “Electric Blankets Feel Like Home,” the musical by James E. Grote and George Howe invites audiences into the amusing and often surprising world of Farmer Brown and his animals.

When the barn residents discover a typewriter, their newfound ability to communicate with the farmer develops into a dramatic standoff: no milk or eggs until the animals get electric blankets. As Farmer Brown protests, “Cows that type. Hens on strike! Whoever heard of such a thing?” Farmer Brown is played by talented performer Julian Deleon, who brings the beleaguered character to life with engaging charisma. Jackie Rowe sparkles in the fierce and funny role of the Hen, while Paul Lindley II charms the audience as Duck, serving as both narrator and participant in this farmyard tale. Frances Farrar and Georgie Harrington excel as the title characters: Cows 1 and 2 are vibrant individuals with impressive commitment and loads of personality. At certain shows, Taylor Diveley (Duck), Brandi Smith (Cow 1), Imani Ross-Jackson (Cow 2) and Erica Cooper (Hen) will perform.

Cast members capitalize on the physical comedy made feasible by a remote control feature with humorous “rewinding” and “translating” from animal speak. The script retains key elements from the beloved book while also opening up inventive possibilities. For instance, while Duck is presented as a “neutral party” in the book, the play suggests a more complex (and hilarious) situation. Guided by accomplished director Jerry Stevenson, the production team has crafted an appealing farm experience with a touch of whimsy and a whole lot of creativity. Just wait till you see the clever take on a duck pond as realized by set designer Robert Michalski. Costumer Donna Harvey evokes animal characteristics while also suggesting distinct identities, especially with the cows’ outfits. Courtesy of expert choreographer Cindy Flach, the tap sequences provide energy and flair. My tap-dance-loving daughter was star struck by the spiffy tap number that enlivens the title song. Music Director Lindley guides adept singers through the enjoyable score, while stage manager Crystal Aldamuy and sound/light technician Jim Litzinger ensure that top-notch quality emerges in every aspect of Click, Clack, Moo with gratifying attention to detail.

My kindergarten child was overjoyed to see one of his all-time favorite books come to life on stage. “Oh, wow! That was great! Hooray!” he cheered while clapping vigorously. Hooray, indeed. Hooray for this extraordinary cast and crew, hooray for a community that supports local theatre for families and schools, and hooray for a brilliant launch to Season 11 for Columbia Children’s Theatre.

Click, Clack, Moo will be performed on Saturday, September 26 at 10:30 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m. as well as Sunday, September 27 at 3:00 p.m. (There will also be an adults-only “Late Night Date Night” version of the show presented at 8:00 pm on Friday, September 25). For more information, call (803) 691-4548 or visit www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com.

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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"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/ .

 

"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

 

 

"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.

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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.