children’s theater

ZooZoo, straight from the polar bear’s mouth

What makes Imago's all-star critter spectacular such a cool seasonal treat? Get the whole scoop from an inside-the-costume source.

ZooZoo, Imago Theatre’s one-of-a-kind, all-ages, greatest-hits show, opens again in Portland on Friday, and I’m here to tell you, if you’ve never seen it, get your tickets now. If you have seen it, see it again: Things are always shifting, and given the unique relationship between audiences and performers, no two performances are exactly alike. An amalgamation of vignettes from Imago’s internationally renowned signature show, Frogz, which has been hopping around the globe since Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad founded the company in 1979, and Biglittlethings, which opened in 2003, ZooZoo is an enthralling 90 minutes of mask and mime theater and benefits from the blood, sweat and tears of some of Portland’s most gifted artists over the past 40 years. Last year’s production, for instance, featured a new piece called “The Magic Cloth,” a collaboration with The Lion King’s Broadway co-designer, Michael Curry.    

The author in full polar bear mode. Photo courtesy Danielle Vermette

Why take my word for it? First, I’ve gifted this show many times to friends and family, always to ecstatic responses. More to the point, as an Imago performer since 1999, I’ve been in it. I still appear now and then in Imago’s other works, namely in Triffle’s original shows, but my touring career ended after about a decade.  While my heart is forever green and some of my fondest memories are of slithering, frolicking, and white-knuckling my way across the country with comrades in the show (and sometimes in the snow), frog legs ain’t easy to come by: my knees began the slow slide into retirement mid-career in 2005 in a gymnasium in Arcata, California. 

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Dressed for success at Oregon Children’s Theatre

Mo Willems' "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: the Rock Experience" puts some pep in the step of a popular kids' story about individuality and courage.

On the surface, the naked mole rat doesn’t seem like a creature with a lot to teach us. But popular children’s author Mo Willems knew better when he wrote the book Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, and then adapted it into a stage musical with music by by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Oregon Children’s Theatre’s production of “Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed” plays through February 17 at the Newmark Theatre, directed by OCT Artistic Director Stan Foote.

In Willem’s musical, Wilbur (Martin Hernandez), the naked mole rat of the title, discovers he’s a little different. He wants to wear clothes, you see, which is frowned upon in a community (or underground system of tunnels) where no one has ever done that before.

After all, when we are first introduced to the naked mole rat society at the beginning of the show, they are singing the “Naked Rules!” — which includes the lyrics: “Part mole, part rat, totally NAKED!” So, by the time Wilbur belts out “Time to Get Dressed” the show’s second musical number (in which he questions who he is and whether it is okay to be who he wants to be), we all know the rules — and the implication is that Wilbur should too.

Wilbur (Martin Hernandez, at right) is well-suited to defy naked mole rat social norms. Photo: Owen Carey

The themes here are heavy and important, but done in a fun way so that kids get the message — “It’s okay to be different” — without feeling lectured.

All the characters in this show are “naked” mole rats, but don’t worry: It’s all kid-safe fun! They are fully clothed, but in clever costumes (kudos to costume designer Sydney Dufka, wardrobe manager Emily Horton and costume design apprentice Zyla Zody) that let them somehow pass as naked mole rats.

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We are in a play (for as long as it takes)!

At NW Children's Theatre, a musical adaptation of Mo Willem's popular kids stories will keep little ones engaged well after parents might not be.

Northwest Children’s Theatre’s production of Elephant & Piggie’s We are in a Play! is as silly as you might expect. It is, after all, based on the popular Elephant and Piggie children’s books by Mo Willems, in particular, “We are in a Book!”

The concept of the book is that the elephant and the piggie realize they are in a book and they get very excited that they can make the reader say whatever they want. This delights kids, because there is magic in the book characters controlling Mom or Dad.

John Ellingson and Joellen Sweeney in “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play.” Photo: Northwest Children’s Theatre.

There is magic on stage, too, in this musical, with script and lyrics by Willems himself and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. There are clever costumes designed by Mary Eggers, which turn humans into an elephant and a pig (plus a dog, a penguin, and three squirrels) while allowing us to still see the humans inside them. The simple set designed by John Ellingson at first looks like little more than a shiny game-show backdrop, but proves to be much more useful than that.

This sixty-minute musical is packed full of songs. There are ten musical numbers across a variety of genres – from operatic ballad to love songs to classics to even one with a kazoo – give this production for the very youngest audiences the credibility of a full-blown musical. And Willems’ script, of course, is chock-full of funny one-liners for the kids, with a little added for the grownups (after all, moms and dads have to attend the play with their little ones, so they might as well enjoy it). So we get: “Elephants cannot dance. … Animal Planet even made a documentary about it.”

And NWCT has cast six terrific actors to play the animals in this imaginary land, particularly Joellen Sweeney as a perfectly cheerful and naïve Piggie and John Ellingson as the doofy and worrying Elephant, Gerald. Both stars sing, dance, and provide plenty of pratfalls and belly-laughs.

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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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‘Caterpillar’: No play, lots of play

So what if there's no plot? Oregon Children's Theatre's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show" is a delight (painter and puppets included)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show at Oregon Children’s Theatre is tough for an adult to review fairly. It’s for the very youngest OCT audiences, after all, and it can be difficult for a lifelong theatergoer to look at a show through that lens.

For starters, there is no plot. How does one critique a staged performance of an artist (Robi Arce, truly a delight) paining a blue horse (and a yellow cow and a purple fox, and others) to the joyful squeals of children?

And this isn’t really a “play” in the traditional sense: Instead, it’s five ensemble members (not playing characters, really) retelling/performing four beloved Eric Carle’s children’s books: The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mister Seahorse, The Very Lonely Firefly, and of course, The Very Hungry Caterpillar that this show was inspired by and named for.

Painting animals (and puppets to match): He’s all ears. Photo: Owen Carey

So instead of trying to critique this as a traditional play, let’s look at what it is and what it’s trying to accomplish: This is a show filled with colors and puppetry trying to entertain children. And, by those measures, it is a resounding success.

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‘La Belle’ steams back

Imago Theatre's mechanically marvelous steampunk-vaudeville retelling of "The Beauty and the Beast" returns from the road for a hometown run

It’s a Monday afternoon in early spring, and the road warriors are back in town. “I don’t know,” Jerry Mouawad says, just a trifle wearily. “We’ve probably played a thousand venues across the country.”

That covers a few decades and a few shows, from Whistlestop, Anystate to the New Victory Theatre on Broadway. Mostly, it covers variations over the years of Imago Theatre’s splendid family shows Frogz, Biglittlethings, and ZooZoo, and a little bit of Mouawad’s conceptually radical, tilted-stage production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. And in the past year it’s included Imago’s newest ravishing visual spectacle, La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton.

Jim Vadala, Justine Davis: love in miniature. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

La Belle, which opened at Imago to rapturous reviews in December 2016, has had small East Coast and West Coast tours in the ensuing months, including an engagement in November in Santa Rosa, California, at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, where it was one of the first shows to play in the reopened hall after last year’s devastating wildfires destroyed much of the arts center and surrounding town. Now it’s back for another hometown run, opening Friday at Imago and continuing through April 29. If you haven’t seen it, here’s your chance. If you have, chances are you’ll want to catch it again. As Marty Hughley noted in his ArtsWatch review of the premiere: “Imago’s La Belle is a creature of a rare and wonderful sort, a show you may well want to see over and over again, both to marvel at its graceful mechanics and to soak in its symbolic resonances about the human, animal and spiritual in us all.”

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Stars rising: Clay and Ellis

La'Tevin Alexander Ellis is a star on the rise playing a star on the rise in Oregon Children's Theatre's "And in This Corner: Cassius Clay"

It’s pretty incredible to witness a star in the making – and that’s exactly what you’ll see at Oregon Children’s Theatre’s latest, And in this Corner: Cassius Clay – The Making of Muhammad Ali.

You wouldn’t be foolish to assume I am talking about Cassius himself, the someday Greatest, the future champ whom this magnificent play by Idris Goodwin is about. But, in fact, the star in the making you’ll witness is La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, the young actor who plays Cassius.

Ellis has all the right moves to play Cassius – from the innocence of the sweet 12-year-old boy who loves his mom and dad (Damaris Webb and Eric L. Island, both understated and letting Ellis’s star shine), his brother Rudy (Johnny Crawford), and his best friend Eddie (Charles Grant, another show-stopper); to the emerging fighter being trained by Joe Martin (Jared Mack); to the Olympic champion; to the activist.

Ellis (and Clay) triumphant. Photo: Owen Carey

This is the true-life coming-of-age tale you are expecting, of course: Yes, this boy who comes from such humble beginnings that his dad saved up for eight months to get him a bike, wins the Olympics. Yes, he grows up to become the greatest boxer of all time. But there’s much more to it. This isn’t a story about the making of a boxer so much as it is about the making of an activist. Spurred mostly be Eddie, Ellis’s Cassius grows from the cautious kid scared of the neighborhood bully, Corky (Gerrin Mitchell, hilarious and memorable in the role), to the man who will fight for himself and for those who cannot fight for themselves.

This is a history lesson about the civil rights era for today’s youth, who, especially in Portland, might be a bit sheltered or ignorant on topics of race, segregation, and discrimination. My own 5-year-old was troubled by the characters learning of and explaining the death of Emmett Till – as she should be. This is a production that will stimulate important conversations we should be having with our children: about history, racism, and privilege.

But this is also the vehicle for a truly great star performance in the title role, and Ellis delivers across the board: from his punches , jabs, and footwork to his swagger. Not many people can pull off lines like, “I don’t gotta act like I’m better. I AM better!” and make you both believe him and love him anyway. Ali could do that. So can La’Tevin Alexander Ellis.

His performance is helped by that supporting cast, with not a weak performance among them; a surprisingly simple set – just a boxing ring that becomes everything it needs to – by scenic designer Tal Sanders; and deft direction from co-directors Stan Foote (OCT’s artistic director) and Jerry Foster. The fight scenes also demonstrate the skill of boxing choreographer Damaris Webb (who also plays Cassius’s mother, Odessa).

In the relatively small space of the Winningstad Theatre, it all comes together for a production that’s larger than life – just like its star, and the one he’s portraying.

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Oregon Children’s Theatre’s And in This Corner: Cassius Clay continues through March 25 in the Dolores Winningstad Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket and schedule information here.

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Read Bobby Bermea’s ArtsWatch profile, And In This Corner … La’Tevin Alexander Ellis.