It's Play Time!

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.

For kids who have a bit of the groupie in them, Main Street Theater's Young People's Theater, which also produces shows all year, is offering a small-scale but thoroughly charming musical version of a play from the Hank the Cowdog series, John Erickson's popular canine literary sensation that has grown from a small-press effort to a national industry, with audio tapes and a fan club, and nearly one million books in print. In Hank the Cowdog and the Curse of the Incredible Priceless Corncob -- with music and lyrics by Erickson -- dogdom's Texas-style equivalent of Don Quixote finds himself in possession of a rare and priceless corncob; he quits as "head of ranch security," only to have a series of comic misadventures with a "silver monster bird" (airplane), "eyecrossorosis" and Rip and Snort, the Coyote Brothers, before learning some important lessons.

Summer theater for children would be incomplete without mime. Texas Mime Theatre, founded in 1981 and a year-round artist-in-residence company with Houston Community College since 1988, has three summer productions using movement, gesture, masks and music. Unlike many adults, kids love pantomime; I know this because during the performance I saw (The Tale of the Mouse, a play based on African folk tales), a bad boy sitting next to me, who kicked seats, said bad words and looked for a fight, couldn't be tamed by his counselor's threats to return him to the camp bus or by the beautiful stained-glass Star of David radiating composure from the ceiling of the impressive Heinen Theatre. But when the show began and our side of the audience was asked to participate, he was soon the model spectator, bragging, "I bark better than you." He reprimanded someone on the other side of the auditorium for participating when not called on, and when he learned that that side of the room got to coo like a big mean green bird, he battled his nascent sense of civic duty until I told him that, yes, it'd be okay for him to flap away.

Express Theatre, in its third year-round season, is, according to artistic director Y.A. Bagersh, "a multicultural children's theater, one that, through theater's fun, exposes children of all races and economic backgrounds to all the countries of the world and all the ethnicities." At the Children's Museum of Houston, children can see the well-intentioned if slight Pocahontas in between walking through exhibits that let them milk a fake cow and reach inside mystery boxes.

All the shows' performers greeted the crowd afterward, which was great. But don't let the kids dally too long; about the only traumatic moment I witnessed involved an actor, clearly in a hurry, who had changed lickety-split and dashed off to his car. Young Marcella, clearly disillusioned, and whom the actor apparently didn't hear, trailed behind him, imploring, "Hey, wait a minute."

Kids' Theater
There are a number of theatrical outlets offering children's theater this summer in Houston. Included among them are the following. Call the numbers listed for more details.

Actors Theatre of Houston, 529-6606. Presenting The Wizard of Oz through July 17.

A.D. Players, 526-2721. Presenting Gideon through July 23.
Children's Theatre Festival, 743-2929. Presenting Hansel and Gretel through July 18; The Pied Piper, Aug. 2-14.

EarlyStages, 527-8243. Presenting The Reluctant Dragon through July 24.
Ensemble Theatre, 520-0055. Presenting Story Theater July 8 & 9.
Express Theatre, 759-1314. Presenting Pocahontas through August 6; African Delight, July 30; Cinderella and the Magic Tree, July 31; Child Song.

Main Street Theater, 524-6706. Presenting Hank the Cowdog and the Curse of the Incredible Priceless Corncob June 30 & July 1; Wind of a Thousand Tales, July 13-15 & 20-22.

Texas Mime Theatre, 665-7145. Presenting Backstreet Peter & the Wild, Wild Wolf, July 13-15; Aesop's Fables July 20-22; Carnival of the Animals, July 27-29, 10:30 a.m.


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