One of the pleasures in covering children's theater over a period of time is watching a promising new company take root and grow.
One company that has blossomed since its debut in 1995 is Imagination Station, the storytelling theater troupe that, despite rough edges, stood out from the beginning with slightly offbeat, literate and comic fairy tale plays at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica.
With each production--three a year--this spirited company, with a core group of four (Jennifer Brandt, Jake Eberle, Shari Getz and Jon Reed), has gained assurance. That growth is particularly evident in its reprise of a first-season success, "Puss in Boots."
Although the story remains the same--the late 17th century French fairy tale author Charles Perrault is writing the tale as a special treat for a young girl, and in so doing he becomes the magical cat himself--the revised script (all the shows are ensemble efforts) is sharper and funnier; so are the performances.
Eberle plays the miller's son, whose only legacy from his late father is a cat. Seemingly bad luck turns to good when Puss (Derek Stephen Prince plays both Perrault and the title role) immediately goes to work to better the young man's fortune.
The enterprising feline's plan wouldn't work nearly so well if not for the ambitions of a nearby king (Reed) who's eager to marry off his daughter (Brandt), a princess who never met a prince she liked.
Reed, with Brandt perfect as his indignant foil, again earns giggles for his portrayal as a foppish, gourmand royal with an Elmer Fudd accent who loves "woast wabbit" and can never remember to call his daughter by name, preferring tasty nicknames such as "Apwicot" and "Peaches."
Reed also portrays the cranky ogre that Puss bests for his master's gain. Reed plays the part masked and mostly in enlarged silhouette behind a drape; the use of silhouettes also works well in other scenes, particularly when the princess and the miller's son meet on opposite sides of the castle garden wall, getting to know each other without revealing their true identities.
This version of the play has also made a hilarious highlight out of some comic interplay between cast members Sarah Bell, Eberle, Brandt and Getz as the ogre's oppressed field laborers. Swathed in hooded tatters, the absurdly wretched peasants compete with one another in verbal one-upmanship that takes the form of Monty Python-esque, pseudo-erudite observations of their plight.
Clever staging also makes a highlight out of the king's coach trip across the lands that Puss in Boots has acquired to give credence to his master's new identity as the Marquis of Carabas. The "coach," manifested solely by the spinning, spoked wheels held by Getz and Bell and by the actors' well-timed movement, is a big hit.
Only some slightly tardy musical punctuation interrupted the show's confident rhythm during its opening performance last weekend.
* "Puss in Boots," Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, Saturdays, 10 a.m. and noon; Sundays, 11:30 a.m. Ends Feb. 8. $5-$7. (310) 828-7519. Running time: 1 hour.
Reading, Writing . . . and Musical Theater?: Do you remember the Constitutional Convention? No? Well, maybe if you hum a few bars. . . . When Jeff Lantos teaches history to fifth graders at Marquez Charter School, the notes they study are as likely as not to be of the musical sort.
"Miracle in Philadelphia!," a musical theater work with educational intent, was written by Lantos with music by his creative partner, Bill Augustine. In it, Lantos explained, "Madison and Washington sing 'Now or Never Time' to the delegates, and Ben Franklin sings 'Gotta Compromise'--a little soft shoe. It's a musical version of the Constitutional Convention of 1787."
Performed by 70 fifth-graders in powdered wigs, waistcoats and knickers, the show will have four public performances at the school in Pacific Palisades, beginning today, and one at nearby Temple Kehilleth.
A U.S. history teacher whose professional works for young audiences ("Big Tush, Little Tush") and for adults ("Tight Quarters") have been produced locally at the Groundling and Tiffany theaters, Lantos says musical theater is a valuable teaching tool.
"When kids sing and act in something, they not only absorb information more quickly but they retain it longer," he said.
Eventually, Lantos hopes to be able to musically teach a whole year's history curriculum. "Hello Louisiana," about the Lewis and Clark expedition, debuts in the spring; Lantos and Augustine are also working on a musical about the Battle of Yorktown.
* "Miracle in Philadelphia!," Marquez Charter School, 16821 Marquez Ave., Pacific Palisades, today, 1:30 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m.; next Thursday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Free. Also at Temple Kehilleth, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades, Monday, 7 p.m. Donation. (310) 454-4019.