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The Point Is to Entertain and Educate

Theater * Marc Brown, creator of 'Arthur,' wants Mom and Dad to have fun too at a stage show about a studious aardvark and his lost pencil.

February 23, 2001|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"It can be like having a root canal!" exclaims Marc Brown, the creator, writer and illustrator behind the popular "Arthur" children's books and PBS television series.

Brown is referring to the experience some parents have in accompanying their kids to children's theater productions based on hit TV series. The little ones may be transfixed by the characters onstage, but Mom and Dad spend much of the show checking their watches and wondering what's for dinner.

So when SFX Family Entertainment approached him about bringing "Arthur" to the stage, Brown insisted that any theatrical production surrounding his characters possess a wide appeal.

"When I saw the 'Rugrats' stage show, I thought the sets and the costumes were great, but I was a little concerned that there wasn't more of a story line," Brown recalls. "I said, 'If we're going to do [a theatrical show], I really want it to be a story that both kids and parents are going to be able to follow and enjoy.' If adults are taking kids to see this, I want them to have a good time too."

Brown and director-choreographer Anita Mann believe they have achieved this tricky balance with "Arthur--A Live Adventure," the stage production that opens a six-day run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center Tuesday, then plays the Pasadena Civic Auditorium March 7-11.

Like the corresponding books and TV series, "Arthur--A Live Adventure" revolves around Arthur the aardvark and his pals. The central conflict occurs when the lovable third-grader loses his lucky pencil before a big test. As he searches for it, Arthur learns some important lessons about life and self-esteem.

Brown came up with the concept; the script was written by Peter Hirsch, who is a writer for the "Arthur" TV show.

As part of the effort to broaden its appeal, "Arthur--A Live Adventure" presents numerous musical styles, including country, rock 'n' roll, rap and disco. The show includes a high-octane medley and dance number called "100 Years of Music" that incorporates everything from the Charleston to the '70s disco hit "YMCA."

Mann was chosen to direct and choreograph the show in part because of her experience working with children's musicals. Since the 1970s, she has directed numerous children's stage productions, including the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" live show. A former dancer, Mann has also choreographed many television specials and non-children's live shows. (She won an Emmy for best choreography for the 1995 Miss America Pageant.)

One of Mann's challenges with "Arthur" was choreographing energetic and captivating dance moves for actors wearing huge shoes and oversized character heads.

"You really have to be strong [to dance in the costumes]," Mann explains. "But first we teach them how to breathe. You have to know when to breathe or you can hyperventilate and faint."

"Arthur--A Live Adventure" includes a number of interactive segments. The characters step down into the audience to cavort with their young fans at one point. Children are also asked to shout out encouragement to Arthur during other segments.

Brown created Arthur in 1976 as a bedtime story for his oldest child. Since then, nearly 40 million "Arthur" books have been sold worldwide. The majority of these have been sold since the TV series debuted in 1996. "Arthur" is one of the top-rated TV shows among children ages 2 to 11.

It was the success of the television series that convinced SFX Family Entertainment that "Arthur" could also be a profitable stage production.

"We're hoping that this will become the next 'Sesame Street,' " enthuses Shelley Serio, SFX executive producer for "Arthur--A Live Adventure." " 'Sesame Street' has been on for 20-plus years, but they keep coming out with new [theatrical] shows. It's the same thing with 'Barney.' We want to keep this out there. It's a great product. It teaches all the great life lessons like 'Believe in yourself.' "

There are plans to launch a new "Arthur" stage show this fall or early next year. Brown also says a feature film is likely to be made.

* "Arthur--A Live Adventure." Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesday-March 4. 7 p.m. except March 3, 10:30 a.m., 2 and 6 p.m.; March 4, 2 p.m. $13.50-$29.50 except Feb. 27, $8.25-$29.50. (714) 556-2121. Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena. March 7-11. 7 p.m. except March 10, 10:30 a.m., 2 and 6 p.m.; March 11, 1 and 4:30 p.m. $12.75-$28.50. (626) 449-7360 or (213) 365-3500.

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