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Taking the Kids

When the Curtain Calls

August 18, 1996|EILEEN OGINTZ

During the second act of "The King and I," Graeme Browning tried in vain to wake her 7-year-old daughter, Lowry. Anna and the King of Siam were about to launch into their signature "Shall We Dance" number and Browning had paid dearly--$140 for a pair of tickets--to introduce her child to the wonders of the Broadway stage.

But Lowry slept on, exhausted by her first trip to New York and blissfully unaware of the first-rate performance unfolding before her, as well as her mother's frustration.

Some nights, the youngest of the 17 children in the show also have trouble staying awake, confessed John Curless, who plays the captain of the ship that brings Anna and her young son to Siam where she becomes governess of the king's children. After all, the production lasts for more than two hours--quite a long time for a small child.

Other children in the audience, including my 5-year-old, grew fidgety or even frightened by some of the costumes and sets, beautiful though they were.

Jeff McCarthy is accustomed to that reaction. He plays the Beast in the Broadway production of "Beauty and the Beast" and has weathered more than his share of bawling preschoolers. "I think 5 is a safe age to bring kids to the theater," said McCarthy, the father of two young daughters. "But talk to them ahead of time about what they're going to see."

One thing you don't need to worry about: If you take in a play on vacation this summer, your kids will have plenty of company in the audience, whether at a college campus musical or a glitzy Broadway production.

"I can't figure it out," confessed actress Debby Boone, who plays the bad girl Rizzo in "Grease" on Broadway and looks out at a sea of youngsters each night.

Even Boone said she thinks twice about the expense before taking her four kids to a play.

Perhaps it's the number of productions touring nationally and the subject matter of those on Broadway, including "Big," "Grease" and "Beauty and the Beast," which have tremendous kid appeal. Perhaps it's because today's parents are concerned that their children aren't getting enough exposure to the arts in school.

Susan Cohn, Connecticut mother of three, has another explanation. "Taking my kids to see plays is like getting them to eat Indian food. I want to expose them to something I love. It's an experience we can share."

"Just don't be surprised if they don't love it as much as you think they should for the big bucks it costs," said Deborah Birnbaum, whose two kids weren't thrilled by "Beauty and the Beast" when they saw it in Washington. "You can't predict what they'll like."

Is it worth the bother and the expense? Absolutely, insists Jed Bernstein, executive director of the League of American Theaters and Producers, a nonprofit, theater-industry trade organization.

"In this age of CD-ROM and the Internet, there is nothing more gratifying for parents than to see their child mesmerized by live theater. Watching live actors on stage cannot be duplicated and children are the first in the audience to realize how special that is."

(Families planning a visit to New York can call [800] 525-BWAY or [212] 563-BWAY to get the rundown on each show. It's also possible to purchase tickets.)

It's not necessary to fork over big bucks to introduce children to live theater. Take them to a local community, high school or university production in the town you're visiting on vacation. One hint: A play that features children in the cast will probably go over well. But wherever you go, Debby Boone advises, give them a quick pre-theater lesson in how to behave in an adult environment. It always helps if they're well rested, have full stomachs and have visited the bathroom before the curtain goes up. Don't despair if the kids complain that they're bored. The day after 7-year-old Lowry slept through the second act of "The King and I," she couldn't stop talking about the play and was too busy reading her souvenir program to complain about the long drive home to Maryland. Those tickets, her mom knew then, were worth the investment.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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