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It's Play Time!

Children's theater is alive, well and thriving in Houston

Since nobody got up to go to the bathroom during any of the summer theatrical productions for children I saw across Houston over the past few weeks, I think it's fair to say that we have an extraordinary number of smash hits on our hands. The enthusiastic audiences, whose ages generally ranged from five to ten, laughed, sang, repeated favorite lines, even danced in the aisles and talked back to the stage -- but nobody's attention strayed from animals with the most interesting of problems or from things that go poof in the night. Well, one little girl started to cry, running from her seat when a mean-looking Indian appeared on the scene, but when she turned around to see if mommy was coming, she gazed at the stage and forgot what was troubling her, since the Indian turned out to be rather nice.

So, is summer theater a viable alternative to kid life at AstroWorld and Splashtown, the mall and Chuck E Cheese, TV and the movies? I attended performances of the five Houston companies that are mounting full summer seasons, and I reached three conclusions: that there most certainly is theater worth taking little kids to; that little kids are, in fact, who should go (this year's calendar, alas, neglects the adolescent set); and that if you pick the right company and the right show, you have a chance to provide children with not only entertaining, mindful fun, but also the glorious experience that there's little as magical as when the houselights go down and the curtain goes up.

Each show lasted about an hour, and whether it was lavishly produced or more modestly undertaken, the young theatergoers were demonstrably entranced by the performers, who wholeheartedly threw themselves into their roles. Sure, theater's technical magic helps to transport, and of course Newberry-quality writing is desired, but all that's really needed is a willing, fun cast ready to charm through archetypal emotions -- and there were no phonies in any of the productions. (Apparently, I was the only one who occasionally found the content to be a bit ambitious for the younger kids.) No ticket, by the way, costs more than $5, and group rates are available.

The Alley Theatre of children's summer stock is the Children's Theatre Festival (CTF). A professional project of the University of Houston School of Theatre, CTF, founded in 1978, attracts more than 35,000 youngsters and their families each summer, and with good reason: each season it puts on three fully staged productions with detailed sets, lavish costumes and professional performers. All productions are newly commissioned works, whether adaptations of familiar fairy tales or original stories about contemporary life. Past collaborators have included such major talents as Charles Strouse (Annie) and Ntozake Shange (for colored girls...). To Sidney Berger, CTF co-founder and producer, it's crucial that the theater concern itself with the next generation of audiences. CTF, he says, "creates works for children from the children's point of view, so that they get into the habit of going to the theater regularly."

The show I saw, a witty musical adaptation of Cinderella that finished its run on June 22, was packed. Excited kids in YMCA and day-camp T-shirts had all sorts of voluble pre-show fun in the handsome UH Wortham Theatre's 500-plus cushiony seats, but they stopped slapping hands at Miss-Mary-Mac and talking to the orchestra pit so they could listen to friendly directions "to clap at something you like and laugh at anything funny." With silly stepsisters and lyrics with lots of rhymes, they did. They oohed at the gilded carriage and aahed at flown scenery, and when Cinderella and the Prince waltzed, Tonicia, a shy five-year-old who had previously whispered her name to me and nothing more, announced, "I can do that."

At a final performance of EarlyStages' production of The Patchwork Girl of Oz, a rather overheated seven-year-old named Jeffrey asked, "Are you going to perform for us?," mistaking me for an actor since I was the only grownup in the audience not accompanied by a child. Misty, a beautiful eight-year-old with a braided black ponytail and day-glo pink sneakers, interrupted, wanting to know why I was writing down what she and Jeffrey said. I told them about my article, and Misty said she had been in a newspaper once; she didn't know which, or for what, but she knew she had been in one. "Can I be in the newspaper too?" Marjorie pleaded, then told me she was nine, no, ten, no, nine, no, ten. A protective woman scolded her wards for talking to strangers, then me for not checking with her first. Chastened, we all waited quietly for the show to begin.

EarlyStages, under the auspices of Stages Repertory Theatre, is in its eighth year, presenting year-round theater that, in the words of EarlyStages director William H. Brown, "clarifies literature taught in the classroom and the home, introduces children to different cultures from their own and emphasizes living and working together in our global villages." Brown mounts shows that are educational as well as entertaining, "so that children can learn while they're having fun." He points out that 80 percent of production costs goes to paying "better quality actors." Such an expenditure clearly pays off: Jeffrey, Misty and Marjorie liked the colorful play a lot, though they couldn't agree on which character -- Dorothy and her famous friends or some new acquaintances like Scraps the crazy-quilt servant girl or Woozy, a blockhead on stilts -- was their favorite.

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