What if the Big Bad Wolf wasn't really bad at all? As the song says, there are "Two Sides to Every Story," and playwright/director Pamela Clifton's interactive children's musical What Really Happened Once Upon a Time, at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, finally defends the real victims of many a bedtime story--the wolves.

Clifton's utterly charming revisionist fairy tale blends The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood into a wry story of wolfen woe. She pictures the wolves as noble creatures who have been misunderstood and indicted out of prejudice rather than proof. The story opens in a wolf courtroom with the rousing "Order in the Court," a song about the "wolves of justice." The bailiff (a wolf in cop's clothing) tells the audience that "we wolves" must decide the guilt or innocence of two wolves accused of heinous crimes. The audience becomes part of the action, howling on cue from the bailiff. The actors also round up children from the audience every now and then and bring them on stage to participate.

The Big Bad Wolf from The Three Little Pigs is Phinneas Z. Phang, a refined Frenchwolf with a very good heart. Accused of wanton destruction of property, Monsieur Phang tells his side of the sordid affair. The curtains part, returning us to the scene of the crime. Those nasty little pigs turn out to be dishonest real estate developers--their houses are made of fake hay, sticks and brick--and a single huff from the honorable building inspector (Phang) is enough to blow each house down. Phang is only looking out for the unsuspecting public when the greedy pigs falsely accuse him.

The wolf of Little Red Riding Hood fame turns out to be a sweet little girlwolf whose mama sent her to the store for cough medicine (her little brother is very sick). Ima hurries out to the woods still dressed in her nightgown when she runs into Red and tries to help the self-absorbed brat make her way to her grandmother's house. Red screams and has the cops lock Ima up for eating grandma without even checking to see if she is still alive.

As the anxious little Ima Wolf, Beth Flynn is all gentle innocence. But she belts out her two big, earthy numbers with terrific style and keeps the audience yowling as she learns to howl like the big boys. Kevin Keyes as Phang could be a matinee idol--he's so Charles Boyer, so debonair in his savoir faire.

Don Bill as the tough, gruff judge brings just the right weight to his performance. Hilary Blair is slightly less engaging as the selfish, vain Little Red Riding Hood than she is as the obnoxious New York porker Arnie. Al McFarland's Eddie the Pig is hilarious, but not as much of a scream as his drag performance of Mumsey (Red's mother).

Christopher Briggs works like a dog in three roles: the bailiff with a Texas accent, the New York pig Slick and the unctuous Dwayne, Little Red Riding Hood's beau. You have to admire the energy Briggs brings to the production, but the poor guy is horribly undermined by the awful sound system in the theater. Only every other word of his is comprehensible, because the body mike, the auditorium's lousy acoustics and the wolf mask don't mix.

Martha Yordy's lively and inventive original music (with lyrics by Clifton) draws from rock-ballad and folk sources. The most inspired piece, sung with gleeful grace by Phang and Ima, sounds like a tune from Jesus Christ Superstar.

It's important when three- to six-year-olds go to the theater that they find magic and intelligence there. Commercial television, after all, treats kids like morons, and smart big-screen movies for little ones are few and far between. A mild little lesson about not judging others too quickly and an even milder message about how wolves have been slandered gives even very little kids something to think about in this show. And mercifully, in-jokes and clever repartee amuse the adults in the audience as well.

When it doesn't patronize its audience, children's theater is real theater; too bad so few people in the theater world understand that.


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