The thunderous applause that typically greets a successful Broadway opening can hardly compare to the joyful noise made by children anticipating that Babe, the Sheep-Pig is about to get under way. And once the play begins, the peals of laughter and murmurs of delight that greet the beautifully costumed characters further indicate that a well-mounted children's show can stimulate the imagination even better than the techno-musical creations that litter the Great White Way.
In fact, the magical silences that descend upon the Arvada Center's auditorium -- packed at a recent noontime performance by hundreds of schoolchildren and their adult taggers-along -- prove that David Wood's tale is an inventive and entertaining way to teach a few lessons about perserverance, loyalty and love. Based on the novel by Dick King-Smith that inspired the hit movies Babe and Babe: Pig in the City, the fifty-minute piece boasts scores of fanciful costumes (crafted by Jane Shafer), a rich array of lighting effects (designed by Gail Gober), a colorful pastel setting (fashioned by Crow Productions) and several fine performances that mix old-fashioned sentiment with off-the-wall wit.
As the action unfolds, a matronly sheepdog named Fly (Heather Bean) periodically steps forward to set the scene and introduce us to this or that character. There's old Farmer Hogget (Joey Wishnia), who starts things off by visiting various booths at a country fair. Shortly after taking a call on his cell phone ("Darn thing; free gift with the new Blazer," he mutters), the befuddled codger happens upon Babe (Shelly Bordas), an eternally optimistic pig. Somehow our hero manages to convince the farmer and his wife (Cini Bow) that he's more valuable than his weight in ham, bacon and pork chops. In due time, Babe is even "adopted" by Fly and her family of puppies, who teach their scrappy sibling the finer points of herding sheep. Convinced that he's found his true calling, Babe contentedly settles down to sleep on a pile of straw as the moon sets and the farmer smiles approvingly to the accompaniment of romantic strains. (The original musical score, some of which is based on Saint-Saëns's Third Symphony, was composed by Keith Ewer.) Following a series of episodes in which Babe uses good manners to deal with unpleasant people and their equally unpleasant ways, the farmer decides to enter his porcine companion in the Grand Challenge Sheep-Dog Trials. It's a formidable, if somewhat plodding, test of Babe's mettle that offers the audience a chance to chime in with a few encouraging -- and, it turns out, wizardly -- words.
Director Christopher Willard keeps the action moving at a comfortable pace and adds a few tongue-in-cheek touches to the enchanting proceedings. Whether Babe is teaching a group of ducks to form an un-duck-like formation, devoting herself to an elderly, finicky ewe (Lisa Mumpton) or confronting a stuck-up cat (Amanda Kay Berg), Willard and the ten actors, most of whom play more than one role, invest each scene with impish charm. Bordas, who, it should be noted, is far from typecast here, makes a winning, tenderhearted Babe. She's nicely complemented by Bean's warm portrait of the motherly dog, tugging on our heartstrings as she bids each of her "children" adieu with a simple, poignant wave of the paw. The always-likable Wishnia turns in another dependable performance as the affable farmer, and Bow, who shuffles about wearing a pair of slippers adorned with the heads of various animals, is hilarious as his effusive mate. The rest of the cast members, which include Gregory Christe, Eric Fry, Andrea Stark and Troy Vincent, tumble in and out of their assortment of roles with nimble flair.
The show lags somewhat due to a convoluted turn of events, and the final, heroic scene seems a tad sedate, given that its outcome is entirely predictable. Minor (and temporary) causes for restlessness aside, though, Willard and company rise to the occasion throughout, making one wish for a steadier diet of children's fare that yields such an abundance of kindhearted mirth.
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