Northwest Children’s Theater

Growing up, up, and away

With its fresh book and music, NW Children's Theater's "Peter Pan" flies into a happy place for young audiences and their grownups, too

This is probably not the first time you have heard of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up. It might not be the first time you will see his tale on stage. In fact, it might not be the first Northwest Children’s Theatre production of it, since it’s somewhat of a flagship for the 25-year-old theater company.

In fact, this is the seventh time the company’s mounted Peter Pan over the years, including this same adaptation – a NWCT commission – in 2012 and its followup in 2013. The good news is that the children in your life have likely not seen as many productions of Peter Pan as you have, and the universal story’s magic and wonder will win them over. The other boon for the grownups in the audience is that even if you have seen another Peter Pan (or several), this one has plenty to offer.

Grace Malloy as Wendy and Peter Thompson as Peter Pan. Photo © David Kinder 2018

For starters, it’s a new adaptation – both book (Milo Mowery) and music (Rodolfo Ortega) – that you haven’t seen if you didn’t catch the 2013 production. The songs are catchy and performed well by all in this cast. And the script is terrific, ratcheting up the preposterousness of Captain Hook and his pirates so kids are still a little scared – but most of the squeals are from delight.

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ArtsWatch year in theater 2017

From "Astoria" to "The Humans" with a whole lot in between, a month-by-month stroll with ArtsWatch through the year in Oregon theater

From Portland Center Stage’s Astoria: Part I (Part II is streaming around the bend in January, along with an encore run for Part I) to Artists Rep’s The Humans and a slew of holiday shows, it’s been a busy, busy year in Oregon theater.

In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival rolled out another season blending contemporary and classic with a wide-angle world view. And the fine actor G. Valmont Thomas, after spending a season playing Falstaff in all three plays in which the great character appears, died in December from bone cancer, at age 58.

In Hillsboro, Bag&Baggage, which had been temporarily homeless, opened a spiffy new home in a renovated downtown former bank building.

In Portland, the sprawling Fertile Ground festival introduced dozens of new works (and, like Astoria, is gearing up for a fresh new run in January). Chris Coleman, Center Stage’s artistic director for 17 years, announced he would be leaving at the end of this season to take over the theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. TCG, the influential Theatre Communications Group, held its annual conference in Portland. And theater companies large and small produced more plays than The Count could count in a dozen seasons of Sesame Street.

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Amelia Earhart (and puppets, too)

Northwest Children's Theater's "Starlings" take flight with a new musical about the aviator pioneer and other women heroes of the sky

If you haven’t seen a previous production featuring the Starlings, Northwest Children’s Theater’s “all bird, all puppet acting troupe,” you might be in for a surprise with Amelia Earhart’s First Flight. Whether that surprise is pleasant or not probably depends on a couple of things: how much you were hoping for a more straightforward take on the life of Amelia Earhart, and how good your sense of humor is.

I’ll cast my vote right here: Overall, the one-hour production is a delight. It moves so quickly your head will spin, but in a good way. And, if you’re thinking only young kids will enjoy this one (the company recommends it for ages 4 and up), think again: On the way out of the theater the afternoon we saw it, two teenagers were talking about how they’d enjoyed it much more than they should have – and it was one of the teens’ second time seeing it.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s … Amelia Earhart! Photo © 2017 David Kinder

The NWCT Starlings are a group of colorful birds who also happen to be theater performers. The magic starts for the younger set the moment you step inside Northwest Children’s Theater’s space on Northwest Everett Street. Colorful bird puppets are everywhere: taking tickets, directing people to and from the restroom, guiding lost patrons to their seats, sitting down in the row with you and having a chat. They might even ask permission to perch on your arm (and they’ll reciprocate by letting you pet their feathers, if you ask).

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A Wonderful Wizard of Oz that favors film fans

Kids will be delighted by NWCT's play that so aptly mimics the movie.

Have you heard? there’s a Wizard of Oz production on right now! The Wizard of Oz is playing through Jan 2 at Northwest Children’s Theater.

“Well, that settles it; we’re off to see The Wizard!” you may immediately proclaim. “Never mind the review.” And I say more power to you. Yes, you may be excused. Go!

Ronni Lee is Dorothy, Clara-Liis Hillier is the witch, and there’s even a little dog, too!

Now, then. Those of us you who are still reading probably fall into two types: extreme Dorothy devotees who demand perfection from their Wizard of Oz productions, and people who could give a rip about The Wizard, but are gamely seeking shows to enjoy with their family over the holidays. And both sets of folks are wondering, “Is it good?” Good news: it’s excellent. And in the best sense of the word, it’s “safe,” faithfully recreating all of the major elements from in the 1939 movie version. This show is almost exactly everything you’d expect. The Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow and Wizard look, sing and talk just like they do in the movie, Dorothy’s eyes and vowels are every bit as round as Judy Garland’s, Toto is a real live terrier, and so on. This show could almost be called The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, On Stage. And that’s ideal for kids.

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And suddenly it’s October. Among other things – pumpkin patches, Yom Kippur, the World Series, Halloween – that means we’re two days from First Thursday, Portland’s monthly gallery hop of new shows. This week’s visual art calendar is a doozy, from open studios to Warhol with lots between.

A few of the highlights:

James Lavadour Ruby II, 2016 oil on panel 32" x 48"

James Lavadour, “Ruby II,” 2016, oil on panel, 32″ x 48.” PDX Contemporary.

James Lavadour at PDX Contemporary. It’s always a good day when new work by Lavadour, the veteran landscape expressionist from Pendleton, comes to town. This show, called Ledger of Days, furthers his exploration of the land and its mysteries. “A painting is a structure for the extraordinary and informative events of nature that are otherwise invisible,” he writes. “A painting is a model for infinity.” Lavadour is also one of the moving forces behind Pendleton’s innovative and essential Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. Watch for what’s coming up.

The new Russo Lee Gallery: 30 years. What you’ve known for years as Laura Russo Gallery is celebrating three decades with a showing of new work by its distinguished stable of artists – and with a new name. The name is a fusion of the gallery’s long tradition and current reality. After founder Laura Russo died in 2010, her longtime employee Martha Lee bought the business and continues to operate it. This show promises to be a statement of sorts, and will have a catalog available.

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Cat in the Hat for President!

NW Children's Theater opens its season with a sassy Seuss favorite, plus a pop-rock musical about the presidents in all their semi-glory

“Just START, already!” the young lady seated next to me, possibly five years old, sighed impatiently. Unfortunately she still had a ten-minute wait until 1 o’clock showtime, a lag that she and her friend – or possibly sister – filled partly by doing counting games: a hopscotch-rhythm advance by ones up to fifty, with a slight pause as each “zero” landmark was achieved, then starting over at one and climbing up the ladder again. It seemed certain she could have kept going to sixty and seventy and beyond, but games have rules, and that’s not how this game worked.

When a kid’s come all the way to a theater and wedged through a notably hyperactive crowd just to see The Cat in the Hat, any delay can be excruciating. Fortunately, when Dr. Seuss’s famously flamboyant Cat eventually showed up in the lanky form of actor John Ellingson, he did so with an emphatic splat. This production, at Northwest Children’s Theater & School, is bright and giddy and tautly wound like an old-time cartoon, an effect amplified by Rodolfo Ortega’s bouncy silent-movie-like score and Jake Newcomb’s whiz-bang sound design.

John Ellingson as the Cat in the Hat, Jenny Bunce (and hand puppet) as the Fish. Photo: ©2016 Pat Moran

John Ellingson as the Cat in the Hat, Jenny Bunce (and hand puppet) as the Fish. Photo: ©2016 Pat Moran

Katie Mitchell’s adaptation, produced originally by the National Theatre of Great Britain, is pretty much a three-D amplification of the book itself, which is a good thing, because most of the audience knew the words by heart, and there’s no sense in fiddling with either words or hearts. The set (by Ellingson) looks like the house in the book, the costumes (by Nancy Christy) look very much like the costumes in the book, and the characters – Harper Lea as the Boy and Gracie Jacobson as Sally, the befuddled kids home alone while their mom’s out; Jenny Bunce as a very funny and exasperated pet Fish (she does the talking; her hand puppet does the swimming); Snigdha Malladi and Hallie Bartell as Thing 1 and Thing 2, the Cat’s kittenish partners in mayhem – are the very characters from the book, doing the very things the characters in the book do. In short, there’s something pleasingly ritualistic about the whole enterprise: It is what it is, and what it is is what it’s supposed to be.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Bluebeards, villain kings, black art’s soul

The feminine mystique of "Bluebeard's Castle," Shakespeare's "Richard III," the trouble with Tiger Lily, black art and meaning in America

The naked truth about Bluebeard’s Castle, Béla Bartók’s astounding hour-long opera that the Oregon Symphony performed Saturday through Monday nights, is … well, let Elizabeth Schwartz explain it, in her typically erudite program notes:

“Bartók worked on the opera over the summer of 1911, when he and his wife Márta spent their holiday at a Swiss nudist colony near Zurich. [Librettist Béla] Balázs, who visited the colony that summer, noted in his diary how the industrious Bartók would spend hours in the solarium, wearing nothing but sunglasses, as he worked on the score.”

Viktoia Vizin as Judith, with Chihuly glass, in "Bluebeard's Castle." Photo: Jacob Wade/Oregon Symphony

Viktoria Vizin as Judith, with Chihuly glass, in “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Photo: Jacob Wade/Oregon Symphony

John and Yoko have nothing on that. And in a way, Bartók’s curious compositional strategy made sense: emotional nakedness is essential to the Bluebeard tale as Balázs retold it. The opera has just two singers: the aging, mysteriously private Bluebeard himself, and his new (fourth) bride, Judith, who insists on bringing some sunshine into the castle, and her new marriage, by demanding that Bluebeard open the seven locked doors that hide his secrets. Maybe not the best idea. At a talk Friday night with symphony director Carlos Kalmar, Christopher Mattaliano of Portland Opera, and the Portland Art Museum’s Bran Ferriso (the show’s set included marvelous glass works by Dale Chihuly), stage director Mary Birnbaum talked about Castle as Judith’s quest for knowledge and openness, which Bluebeard is loath to grant, and I’m inclined to agree that it’s really Judith’s story. Contrary to popular opinion, her soul sisters Eve and Pandora seem the heroes of their stories, too, the ones who provide the essential spark of humanness: How can one be fully human without curiosity and the compulsion to learn? Remember: the last bee to escape Pandora’s bonnet was hope.

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