The performer playing the role of Lilly the white mouse had just walked onstage when a voice rang out from the audience. "Oh, wow," the little girl blurted. "Lilly is black!"
African American actress Silinea Hilliard hears candid outbursts like that frequently during performances of "Lilly and the Purple Plastic Purse." But she draws her audiences so deeply into her whimsical world of talking mice that they embrace her in the role and even shower "Lilly" with gifts after the show.
It's proof, the producers say, that adapting a children's book for the stage has nothing to do with literal interpretation. It's about capturing the spirit of a story--its morals, its whimsy--and making it breathe for an audience.
"What's most important is seeing the humanity in these characters," director Elizabeth Pringle said. "It's about viewing humanity through the lens of a story." The touring play, produced by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is headed for a series of regional performances, including two at Pepperdine University's Smothers Theatre on Saturday. Part of Pepperdine's Center for the Arts' annual Family Fun Series, both morning and afternoon performances are nearly sold out, university organizers say.
"I knew that 'Lilly' was a slam dunk because everybody knows this book," said Marnie Duke Mitze, managing director of the Center for the Arts. "It is in every kindergarten classroom." Beyond the book's fame, producers attribute much of the adaptation's success to playwright Kevin Kling, who first adapted "Lilly" for the Seattle Children's Theatre.
But it takes more than a good book and a sharp playwright to bring a simple tale and a handful of illustrations to life. One of the more obvious challenges is putting human actors into the roles of talking mice who are supposed to be kindergartners.
Lilly wears red cowboy boots and sunglasses, an easy get-up for a costume designer. But then comes the thornier issue of making the actors look like mice without resorting to the big-headed, awkward helmets popularized by Disneyland or Fill-in-the-Blank on Ice. "We don't put big heads on top of them like you would see in the theme park, because then you don't have the actors' faces, and you need the presence of the actor to make a play work," said Kim Peter Kovac, senior director for youth and family programs at the Kennedy Center. "So instead, the ears are made out of speaker wire, and you just kind of see an outline."
For the kids, that's plenty.
The play is adapted from three books by Kevin Henkes: "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse," "Julius, the Baby of the World" and "Chester's Way." All are about talking mice, especially Lilly, a new elementary school student who loves everything about her classroom.
She's so crazy about school that on her first day, she abandons dreams of becoming an ambulance driver or opera singer and declares that she wants to be a teacher. But when her purse causes such a distraction that her teacher, Mr. Slinger, confiscates it for the day, Lilly must learn new lessons about sharing and forgiveness.
"The story is something that is very realistic for a child 5 or 6 years old, when they first get something precious to them, and they are so excited," said Mitze, who discovered the book through her son, now 7. The play, like others in the Pepperdine kids' series, also is an easy sell because young children aren't yet deeply involved in youth sports or other extracurricular activities, although organizers say they see the occasional ticket holder in soccer gear.
The folks at the Kennedy Center also have witnessed crowds of what they call "kid groupies," some of whom arrive seeking autographs or photos with the cast. Other kids come carrying purple plastic purses.
Children who miss the show at Pepperdine will have other chances to see it: It also stops at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in Irvine, the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks, the James Armstrong Theater at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center and the Haugh Performing Arts Center in Glendora.
* Friday 7:30 p.m., Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. $13, adults; $11, children; school groups, $8 a student. (949) 854-4607.
* Saturday,11 a.m., 1 p.m., Smothers Theatre, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. $17.50. (310) 506-4522.
* Monday and Tuesday at 10 a.m. and noon at Fred Kavli Theatre, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. , Thousand Oaks. For information and ticket prices: (805) 388-4411.
* Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the James Armstrong Theatre, 3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance. $11, or for groups of five or more, $8.50 per ticket. (310) 781-7171.
* Feb. 16, at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. at the Haugh Performing Arts Center, Citrus College, 1000 W. Foothill Blvd., Glendora. $5. (626) 963-9411.