When the Great American Children's Theatre of Wisconsin comes to town, it's an occasion. This 20-year-old professional theater company can usually be counted on to satisfy young audiences with big, literature-based shows that are colorful, well-staged and entertaining.
That positive track record makes it all the more disappointing that the company's current production, a static, musically limp adaptation of Margery Williams' classic "The Velveteen Rabbit," whose lengthy Southland tour began Wednesday at the La Mirada Theatre, doesn't live up to expectations.
The show is handsome; set designer Allen H. Jones places a child's upstairs bedroom and playroom against a lovely, painted sky and a vividly outlined, house-shaped scrim that complements Spencer Mosse's evocative lighting effects. Half of the set has oversize proportions to accommodate scenes when the Velveteen Rabbit (Greg Longenhagen) interacts with other toys.
Appreciation for the show's design wears thin, however. Although Shira Flam, who just stepped into the lead role as the Boy five days ago, is on target with boyish energy, under Leslie Reidel's direction, the actors too frequently declaim from stationary positions, and chunks of expository dialogue in Brett W. Reynolds' uninspired script are repeated for the benefit of other characters.
Worse, all the songs by Tom Kochan, while well-sung, particularly by Cynthia Cobb in dual roles as Mother and Fairy, are slow message ballads, staged so that the action comes to a standstill as the actor discernibly awaits a musical cue. This is a deadly mistake, particularly in children's theater, and Wednesday's audience, made up of hundreds of young schoolchildren, grew audibly impatient--some were audibly annoyed--each time it happened.
One can quibble with some of the liberties the script takes, such as the Boy's goodby to the Velveteen Rabbit when it has been transformed into a flesh-and-blood bunny. Williams did no such string-tying. And there is no place for the unpleasant scene created whole cloth in which the Toy Soldier (John Hedges) threatens the Velveteen Rabbit with a rifle.
* "The Velveteen Rabbit," today, 10 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.; Sunday, 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. at La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd.; Tuesday-Wednesday, 10 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. at California Theatre of the Performing Arts, 562 W. 4th St., San Bernardino; Feb. 14-16 at Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; Feb. 18-Feb. 26 at Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd.; Feb. 28, March 1-2 at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. $6-$16.50; (800) 852-9772.