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1994: The Year in Review : The Year in Review: Children's theaters yield some pretty fine efforts. : Shows Kept Kids Little and Big Entertained

December 30, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Much can be said for having kids five or more years apart. Only toting one set of baby gear at a time is easier on your back. And, because pricey little necessities such as orthodontics, prom dates and college tuition come at more widely spaced intervals, it's also a bit easier on your wallet.

Finding entertainment to span the age gap, however, especially live theater, can be a problem.

The traditional "Snow White" may enchant little Tiffany, but it will almost certainly bore the bejeesus out of an older sibling. And a show that caters to older audiences can leave young children squirming, whining and in general discontent.

Fortunately, several local youth theater groups this year managed to produce shows that, through a combination of clever dialogue and inventive staging, stretched to fit a range of age groups, up to and including adults.

And to this end, 1994 did yield some pretty fine efforts. To wit:

* The new Paper Bag Players arrived in Mission Viejo with a bang. The troupe put a twist on youth theater by inviting audiences to pack a lunch and take part in a pre-show nosh with the actors as they prepared for the performance.

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The players got the premiere season off to a slow start with a somewhat frothy version of "Tom Sawyer" but picked up speed in August with a knockout staging of "Little Red and the Hoods." With a script that was heavily peppered with quips and puns and a chummy, audience-participation format that made even the youngest viewers feel part of the action, "Red" was by far the finest the company had to offer this year.

November's staging of "The Jungle Book" swung unsteadily between self-conscious drama and goofball comedy and, coming on "Red's" heels, was a bit of a disappointment. But judging from their earlier efforts, director Bunny Lawson and her adult ensemble are clearly a group that families will want to keep track of in the coming year.

* If you just looked at the titles of the plays presented by Orange's Broadway on Tour, you'd think the group would not have much to offer older children. But director Dan Halkyard is one of those gifted people who can adapt his personality to blend just as easily with kids as with adults, and his shows reflect that.

BOT's lineup, which began in January with "Sleeping Beauty" and ended this month with "Goldilocks and the Christmas Bears," featured shows that stayed close enough to familiar story lines to keep little ones comfortable while offering older viewers an engaging array of quirky characters and clever wordplay, all of it carried out by some very capable young actors.

Though BOT directors went overboard at times with the adolescent humor (please, guys, lose the Steve Urkel bits. . . .), several characters played extremely well to a wide range of ages, including Ryan Butte's wisecracking fairy godfather in "Sleeping Beauty," Keith Hancock's tender "Velveteen Rabbit," Nicholas McKim's simpering Mr. Smee in "Peter Pan" and Christina Davidson and Daina Baker's wonderfully oily cat and fox in "Pinocchio."

By the by, Broadway on Tour, which will perform through February at its storefront theater in The City Shopping Center, will establish new digs this spring in a converted school auditorium behind the Mall of Orange.

* Because Diane Doyle, director of South Coast Repertory's Young Conservatory, took a year off starting in September, the SCR's Young Conservatory Players only put on one show open to the public. But what a show it was: Colin Thomas' "One Thousand Cranes" in June. Doyle's delicate directorial touch and SCR's usual high-quality production values helped make this one of the most memorable shows for any age in 1994.

The piece is a moving retelling of the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died in 1954 of leukemia, presumably brought on by radiation exposure in the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima.

Though younger children may have had trouble following the play's jumpy story line and not fully grasped its anti-war message, even my 6-year-old companion was caught up by the play's bittersweet tone.

* Among the shows presented by the Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater was "Sword in the Stone," Kathryn Schultz Miller's adaptation of the Arthurian legends. Written as two one-acts to be performed separately, the works were presented together for the first time by youth theater director Joe Lauderdale. Though it would have benefited from some trimming, the play was an admirable effort on all fronts. Finely tuned swordplay and some inventive visual effects helped young audiences stay tuned to the stories at hand, well-told by Lauderdale's youthful cast, masterfully anchored by Tim Dey's Merlin.

Two other 1994 productions also deserve quick mention:

La Habra Depot Playhouse Young Actors Company put on a snappy version of Delia Ephron's "How to Eat Like a Child," a slick, savvy primer on behavioral dos and don'ts. The February staging was made snappier still by director Jack Millis' liberal additions of topical humor and an exceptionally talented teen-age ensemble, including Summer Wybacynskey, a tall blonde with a powerful set of pipes and knack for low-key comedy.

In June, theatergoers were able to catch up with Wybacynskey again in the Buena Park Youth Theatre's "The Music Man." She played Marilyn the Librarian to Joe Alfred Lopez Jr.'s cocky Harold Hill in an all-youth staging that had more than enough bite to keep that old standard from being old hat to older kids.

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