In order to make the world safe for theater, children have to be initiated in its mysteries now. Everybody in the business knows this, and strides have been made on the local scene to create theater suitable for children and families--like the splendid Peter Pan presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company last fall. The Shwayder Children's Theatre has a brand-new mission statement that's nothing short of a promise to become as meaningful as, say, the Children's Theatre of Minneapolis. And the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities has found its own niche--interactive children's theater.
These three theaters have different agendas, and all hold out a hope for the future of children's theater in Denver. So far, though, only the DCTC has shown any genius for creating magical theatrical experiences for children. It has the money, the technology and the talent; everybody else has to make do with the little they have. As a pair of current shows makes clear, while commitment can be a marvelous thing and disciplined performances can go a long way, the Shwayder and the Arvada Center have work to do.
The Shwayder has opened its new era of children's theater with a politically correct retelling of Beauty and the Beast, the seventeenth-century story that itself is a spinoff of the ancient Greek myth of Psyche and Eros. This story has appeared in so many versions that one would be hard-pressed to count them all. There was the super hit musical The Phantom of the Opera, the perennial favorite Cyrano de Bergerac and the film classic by Jean Cocteau, La Belle et Le Bete.
Denver playwright Coleen Hubbard has plenty of precedent for departing from the original story line. Unfortunately, she wanders a little too far afield. Hubbard gives Beauty a loving mother (a departure from most fairy tales) and two supportive sisters, a dancer named Grace and a hunter named Joy. However, Beauty herself has virtually no personality. Joy is by far the most interesting of the three sisters--a kind of female Peter Pan of the castle. But once Hubbard introduces Joy and Grace, she gives them nothing important to do. Their professions are pointless--Grace never performs a real dance, while Joy has nothing more substantial to do than menace the beast with her sword.
With no wickedly jealous sisters and no aging father for whom to sacrifice herself (in the grand tradition of monks and knights), the conflict has to come from somewhere else. Hubbard gives us a nasty wizard, Swine (played with elegant flair by David Russell), who was cursed after he transformed little Prince William into a beast. And with two beasts in the show, one good and one evil, the story quickly gets convoluted. The only real interesting character is Silvera, an eccentric earth fairy played delightfully by Hilary Blair.
The main problem with this script lies in its miles and miles of exposition. At one recent performance, it was hard for the adults in the audience to care about all the silly Swine business, and the kids grew restive early on and wriggled visibly through most of the production. Show, don't tell, is the rule.
Yet even if playwright Hubbard has misjudged her audience, this first effort in the Shwayder's new programming shows signs of serious intentions. Artistic director Steve Wilson has made the staging interesting, employing good sets and costumes and going to the trouble of securing some of the most polished talents in town. Deborah Persoff makes a charming maternal figure (quite a change from her ongoing role as the wily housewife in the Avenue Theater's Faithful). As Beauty, Susan Ross is indeed lovely--it's not her fault that her lines are inconsequential. Meredith Davis is smart and vivacious as Joy, the winsome Suzanna Wellens consistently appealing as Grace.
Wilson makes as much magic as he can: The special effects are terrific--brilliant flashes of light that draw the eye and create spectacular disappearing acts. What he needs to do in the future is get tough with his writers.
The same can be said for the Arvada Center's much more entertaining The Wind in the Willows. Arvada has been doing this sort of interactive musical thing for quite a while and has a better grasp of how much talk children can stand. Just when the kids start to act up, the performers swing into another song, get the audience clapping in time or require them all to be trees in the woods, arms waving in the air. But though Douglas Post's adaptation of the wonderful book by Kenneth Grahame uses a lot of the original dialogue, Post doesn't entirely succeed in forming a coherent hour-long version of the story.
It's easy to see how intimidating this classic might be--it's full of talk, which is appropriate to bedtime reading and fully engaging on its own terms, but not particularly interesting on stage. Directors David and Julie Payne compensate by keeping the characterizations snappy, and lots of physical comedy also helps. Brian Upton is marvelously sophisticated and thoughtful as Rat, Don Bill makes a charming and naughty Toad, and Kate Richardson is intriguing as the nasty Chief Weasel. Christopher Willard makes the entire show worthwhile as dear old Mole, hungry for life and experience.
Though both Beauty and Willows have problems, they're at least clearly intended for children. By contrast, parents should know that the musical Into the Woods, now playing at the New Denver Civic Theatre and directly based on several fairy tales, is decidedly not for children. The Stephen Sondheim musical starts out well but perverts its fairy-tale origins with cheesy pop psychology in the second act, making the play depressing and inappropriate for small fry.
The Broadway hit entwines the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. A surprisingly complex witch (the cross-dressing Jeff Roark as a male Mommie Dearest) keeps the action moving: She's the driving force behind a subplot about a baker and his wife who desperately want to have a child. Everybody meets in the woods where all kinds of things are possible, and all the fairy tales end as they should. In fact, the first act is utterly exhilarating and would delight most children.
However, Sondheim and playwright James Lapine switch gears in the second act, giving all the fairy tales cynical, real-life consequences. Prince Charming turns out to be a philanderer, seducing the baker's wife and leaving Cinderella to find a new purpose in life. Poor Rapunzel (who let down her hair once too often) can't get over her lousy childhood and throws herself in the path of Mrs. Giant, who has slid down the beanstalk to get her revenge on Jack and anybody else who gets in her way.
This production, by the new company Feast of Fools, is highly polished, though a too-loud soundtrack drowns out the singers about a third of the time. And despite its thematic drawbacks, it offers one of the best casts yet assembled on the stage at the Civic. In the winning first act, T. David Rutherford gleefully narrates as powerhouse actors Carla Kaiser (hilarious as Jack's protective mom), Sarah Mae Johnson (the feminist Cinderella), Shayna Rose Mordue (purposefully obnoxious as Red Riding Hood), Tim Murtaugh (the sexy Wolf) and lovely Theresa Klug (the troubled Rapunzel) invent new meanings for enchantment. Michael Alessandro and Shana Kelly as the baker and his wife make us care about the magic spells of the first act.
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But all the deconstruction in the second act is an imposition on a body of work that's thousands of years old and shouldn't be dismissed so easily. The first act delights because it is truer to the spirit of these ancient stories. The second act, which tries to show the darker implications of fairy tales, only succeeds in betraying them.
Beauty and the Beast, through March 23 at the Shwayder Children's Theatre, 350 South Dahlia Street, 321-8297.
The Wind in the Willows, through May 16 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.
Into the Woods, through March 9 at the New Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3821.