Debbie Schwartz, Bill Berry (as Rex) and James Burns in The Dinosaur Play.

Where Dinosaurs Rule

The Arvada Center's production of The Dinosaur Play is filled with a wide array of sights and sounds, but the most impressive spectacle occurs shortly after the lights dim, when a stodgy professor wanders on stage and delivers a lecture about paleontology. The audience, made up almost entirely of elementary school children, dutifully listens -- until the egghead's daughter appears and, briefly calling on the crowd for support, exclaims, "We don't mind learning something, Dad, but we want to have some fun!" Without missing a beat, the children explode in a unanimous chorus of agreement. And for the rest of the 55-minute play, the prevailing mood evolves into something best described as: "So long, Barney -- hello live theater."

In fact, the play imparts as many lessons about the magic of theater as it does about self- confidence, courage and common sense. Originally written by Kathy and Steve Hotchner, the Arvada Center's version has been adapted by Christopher Keener, who also composed most of the show's bouncy songs and music. In addition to some engaging performances, the show boasts a wealth of design elements. The lushly lit stage is dotted with primordial trees, an active volcanic formation and a large dinosaur's egg that speaks to the audience in primitive, enchanting ways (Kathryn L. Stephens designed the lighting; Laura Love fashioned the setting). And designer Nicole Hoof's splendid dinosaur costumes are as detailed and colorful as those at the trendiest theme park.

Despite some static dialogue, the story holds our interest throughout -- especially when the actors attempt to enlist our help while being pursued by a ferocious tyrannosaur named Rex (or, as he later refers to himself after delivering a My Fair Lady-ish number, T. Rex Harrison). The crowd rises as one when a triceratops named Tank gives the signal for the Tank Salute: a two-second ritual that's meant to scare off would-be predators. The gesture is also Tank's way of reminding his audience/army that the best way to deal with people itching for a fight is to hold your ground and then confidently walk away. Later scenes examine Tank's reluctance to accept responsibility for an egg he didn't father (but that needs a dad) and his eventual willingness to embrace the lifestyle changes foisted on him by a pushy, well-meaning, long-tailed apatosaurus named Patty.


The Dinosaur Play

Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada

Through May 11 (weekend performances on March 17 and 18), 303-431-3939

Aided by director Liz Jury's astute touches, the actors seem liberated by the oversized costumes rather than hemmed in by them. Brian Landis Folkins delights as the goofy, Noo Yawk-accented Tank; as his unlikely mate, Patty, Kathy Kautz colors a gospel-inspired show-stopper with some rollicking high notes. Anita Boland shines as Baby Tank, rising to the fore to deliver a lovely solo near the end of the play. Debbie Schwartz and James Burns make a nice father-daughter team of explorers, particularly when they flex their limbs during the brief dance sequences, and Bill Berry is both menacing and drolly pitiful as the misunderstood meat-eater (and potential soy-burger convert) Rex.

Combined with a smattering of groaners and several special effects (including some overamplified screams that, at a recent performance, frightened a few younger theatergoers out of their seats and into the lobby), the show is bound to satisfy anyone suffering from Rainforest Cafe withdrawal. Better yet, it beats the hell out of Barney.


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