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Through the Rookie Glass : Youth Troupe Makes a Fearless Debut With Brand New Musical Take on 'Alice'

May 09, 1996|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Uneven casts, makeshift facilities and measly budgets can make any youth-theater production a sanity-testing experience. Add the built-in frustrations of launching a company, and you've got a recipe for dementia.

But to combine all those elements with an untested script that's technically not even finished, you'd have to be stark, raving mad.

Meet Kevin Cochran and Charles Johanson. They're the artistic director and executive director, respectively, of the Grove Theater Center and prime movers behind GTC KIDS, a new children's theater company based at the GTC complex in Garden Grove. Their production of "Alice in Wonderland" opens Saturday.

The one-hour show, which previewed last weekend, is a new musical adaptation by Cochran and composer Tim Nelson of the Lewis Carroll children's classic.

And while the source material is time-honored, the ink on this version remains as damp as the Mad Hatter's tea-soaked biscuit.

Cochran, who directs "Alice," conceded that the piece is a work in progress, but claimed that long-range plans for GTC KIDS are the method to his March Hare madness.

"There are scads of adaptations [of 'Alice'] out there," said Cochran, who has directed numerous shows at GTC and elsewhere, "but we wanted to do our own because we're able to tailor it specifically to the talents of our cast."

"Plus," Johanson added, "having our own adaptation is the first step in building a repertoire for GTC KIDS." Being a part the development process has been a vital experience for the 13 preteens and teenagers in the "Alice" cast, he said.

"It just hasn't been 'Here's the script, memorize it,' " Johanson said. "The kids literally started the rehearsal process with pieces of script and a few songs, and it has grown as it's gone along. That really frees up their imagination and creates a dynamic of give and take."

GTC KIDS was formed in recent weeks, after the Broadway on Tour troupe relinquished its role as GTC's children's theater company in residence. (Broadway on Tour begins matinee performances of its popular musical "Snoopy" on June 1 at the Roxy theater in West Hollywood and is seeking a new, permanent venue in Orange County.)

GTC KIDS will continue the rhythm Broadway on Tour established during its yearlong stay at GTC, presenting family shows every Saturday and Sunday for multi-week runs, Johanson said.

If there's adequate audience response, he expects to produce six GTC KIDS shows, geared to ages 3 and up, each year.

He said it's the first phase in a three-tier plan that would ultimately include a season presented by professional actors for preteen and teen audiences, and a pre-show discussion series at GTC's regular main-stage shows to give families a behind-the-scenes look at a theater company.

GTC, which includes the 174-seat indoor Gem and the 500-seat outdoor Festival Amphitheater, has also been the site of live music and multicultural performances; plans are being finalized to bring in a new musical-theater troupe to present revues this summer to replace Musical Theatre Company, which also recently parted from the GTC fold.

For the new "Alice in Wonderland" production, actor input has colored virtually every aspect of the show, Johanson said.

That includes the addition of songs and comic bits and the updating and "Americanizing" of some of "Alice in Wonderland" author Lewis Carroll's more obtuse passages to make them more accessible to young audiences.

(A professed "computer geek," Johanson helped Cochran download the texts of Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There" via the Internet to create the script.

He recently helped initiate GTC's own web page, which includes information on GTC KIDS. The World Wide Web address is http://www.antigone.com/gtc.)

"The great thing about kids is they have no fear," Cochran said. "They can work with a concept and try it out, but if it doesn't work, they can instantly change direction."

* What: GTC KIDS' "Alice in Wonderland."

* When: Opens Saturday. Performances continue every Saturday and Sunday (except Memorial Day weekend, May 25 and 26) at 2:30 p.m., through June 30.

* Where: Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove.

* Whereabouts: From the Garden Grove (22) Freeway, exit at Euclid Street and drive north. Turn left on Acacia Parkway, then right on Main Street.

* Wherewithal: $6 for children 15 and under and seniors 55 and up; all others, $8.

* Where to call: (714) 741-9550 or (714) 741-9555, ext. 222

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