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CHILDREN'S THEATER REVIEW : Just Play Along With 'Babes in Toyland'


WESTMINSTER — Have your kids ever pulled this on you?

There you sit, absorbed in the business of being grown up, when you're ambushed by a midget Van Gogh wearing paint-splattered clothes and a triumphant grin. Wasting no words, he shoves his latest piece d'art under your nose.

"We-ell," you coo, buying time. "Isn't that a nice, ah . . . hippopotamus?"

The artist's lower lip quivers more than a California aftershock, and you're reminded, once again, that slapping adult labels on children's art is folly indeed. You're safer if you just smile, nod and, above all, ask no questions.

Remember this if you see the Orange County Children's Theatre's staging of "Babes in Toyland." Based on the 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert, this late-model adaptation is bright and colorful, but God help any rational adult who tries to make sense of it. The family musical, which features a 60-member cast aged 7 to 17, runs through Sunday at the Westminster Cultural Arts Center.

In an attempt to clarify the already tangled plot (by adapters Ruth Perry, Ann Smit and Susan Carle) and to accommodate a king-sized cast, OCCT director Terri Miller Schmidt has tacked on even more dialogue and characters. The doctoring doesn't take, however, and an attempt to follow the twists and turns in this "Babes" will find you quaffing Pepto-Bismol by intermission.

As with that kiddie artwork, you're far better off just to sit tight and enjoy the scenery.

With that disclaimer, we offer this best-guess synopsis.

Lowdown toy-maker Mr. Barnaby, aided by henchmen Roderigo and Gonzorgo, have hijacked three of the Widow Piper's 15 children (all fairy-tale and nursery rhyme characters), turned them into dolls and sent them off to the North Pole as part of Santa's latest order. When good guys Alan and Jane, Barnaby's wards, and Tom, Ms. Piper's oldest, get wind of this, they're shipped out on the next steamer and wind up in the treacherous Spider Valley.

Back home, Barnaby tries to woo Contrary Mary, the Widow's daughter, without much success, and Roderigo and Gonzorgo fawn over Ms. Piper, who, eager to hook a new hubby, stows her grief long enough to return the gentlemen's attentions--rather spiritedly, we might add. The kids fill the time with unusual squabbling, singing and plotting of their Christmas haul.

When next we find our heroes, they are foiling some hip-hopping spiders who were about to make a snack of the lovely moth queen, Luna, and her toe-dancing ladies-in-waiting. The queen, after some pretty fluttering and more confusing repartee, magically zaps the threesome back to the toyshop, where they meet up with Santa (yes, Santa), who is toting the missing kiddies and some lofty words of censure for the bad guys.

Schmidt's cast, a mix of first-timers and more seasoned actors, handles the challenge with varying degrees of success. Jillian Jacobs gives the show's best vocal work as Jane, and Russ Ruffino and Jennie Motachman have a pleasant authority as Alan and Contrary Mary.

Steve Questa, in a beard and top hat that makes him resemble a cross between Fidel Castro and Honest Abe, is believably degenerate as Barnaby. So is Sean Jacobs as Gonzorgo, although, given the rest of the cast's vaguely Victorian personality, his "gnarly dude" style is strictly from left field.

Schmidt and choreographer Kai Chubb have managed the cast's size and uneven experience surprisingly well, and turned out several dance numbers that look well-rehearsed and spirited, notably the familiar "March of the Toys" and "I Can't Do That Sum." Unfortunately, the cast's singing generally doesn't measure up, a problem further hampered by a mediocre sound system.

Gena Strelow's costumes are lavish by amateur children's theater standards, and often puckish (check out the spiders' street wear)--maybe a reminder that we shouldn't take any of this, or ourselves for that matter, too seriously.

'Babes in Toyland'

An Orange County Children's Theatre presentation of the Victor Herbert, adapted by Ruth Perry, Ann Smit and Susan Carle. Directed by Terri Miller Schmidt. With Steve Questa, Jillian Jacobs, Russ Ruffino, Sean Jacobs, Jennie Motachman, Ian Jensen and Carrie Reck. Musical direction: Brackett Clark. Choreography: Kai Chubb. Costumes: Gena Strelow. Sound: Bill Bingham. Lighting: Carlone Herman. Performances Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the Westminster Cultural Arts Center, 7571 Westminster Blvd., Westminster. $5 to $7. (714) 962-8344. (OCCT attempts to provide free tickets to social service organizations that assist abandoned or abused women and children. Call (714) 966-4241.) Running time: 2 hours.

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