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Imagination Stage - ARCHIVE
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November 23, 2007 - January 13, 2008
Twice Upon A Time
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:30 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a charming, totally entertaining show for children age 4 and up
Click here to buy the Lorax book
Click here to buy Andersen's Tales

Subtitled "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax and the Emperor's New Clothes," the production seems to offer two one-act musicals by the team that wrote the wonderful Seussical for families as well as Ragtime and other adult fare. Actually, it is one enjoyable full musical for children augmented by a delightful segment originally written for Seussical, but not used in that musical's Broadway production. Both are charming, tuneful, positive and pitched just right for the attention of children in the four to about nine age group. Performed with enticing openness and humor in a completely non-threatening way by a cast of five under director Nick Olcott, the songs are head and shoulders above the quality of those in the usual musical for children, and the staging is constantly entertaining and engaging. With a trio of musicians on the set playing very well orchestrated accompaniment, the cast sings the lyrics clearly so that the kids can follow the story easily, and those lyrics have enough cleverness to intrigue and entertain the parents who are accompanying them.

Storyline: After relating the story of the near-extinction of Truffula Trees and their rescue by the Lorax, the troupe launches into the tale of a young man who becomes Emperor before he is ready (he hasn't finished reading "How To Be A Better Emperor" yet). He's clutching at any straw to help him do his best and, when an unscrupulous tailor promises to make him a wardrobe so impressive that only fools wouldn't recognize his greatness, he falls for the scam. Of course, the tailor delivers no clothes at all but defies anyone to admit that they don't see fabulous garments under penalty of being thought a fool. Only the young mop boy at the palace is willing to tell the young emperor the truth, and, so, he's promoted to Royal Truth Teller.

Story-telling. That is the career of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Flaherty does it with music. Ahrens with words. In their best work each song, scene or speech carries an important part of the story being told and the style of the music and the vocabulary used in lyrics and dialogue are dictated by the needs of the story. An important part of storytelling is knowing your audience. What do they already know? What will interest them? How will they react to different techniques? The team was just beginning to work together in the early 1980s when they met in the famous BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. The first of their shows to be performed for an audience was the portion of this show based on Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Emperor's New Clothes." They made significant changes to the story as they created a charming musical for children with the emperor now a young lad nervous about succeeding in an adult job rather than an old fool ripe for being ripped off by a swindler. The change makes it much easier for youngsters to understand the emperor's behavior. They also changed the truth telling youth from an innocent bystander who didn't know he wasn't supposed to say the king wasn't wearing any clothes to the only potential friend the youthful emperor might have. Both changes work for the better.

The two young men at the center of this, the real story in the show, are Danny Tippett as the emperor and Ryan Nealy as the mop boy. They form a bond that the children can appreciate. Their work on the central song "Only A Guy Like You," with its delightful wordplay, demonstrates that bond nicely. The two also handle key roles in the Lorax story, Nealy as the Lorax himself and Tippett as JoJo who is entrusted with the last remaining Truffula seed. Bobby Smith is the major-domo to the emperor and also the Once-ler who is behind the harvesting of all Truffula trees. As the Once-ler, he handles the tricky part of manipulating the tentacles dangling from the head-piece of a mask so well that the kids in the audience quickly accept it as a creature, and not as some strange kind of hat. Priscilla Cuellar adopts a faux French accent as the swindling tailor that is a bit difficult to follow but the essence of the scam is easy to follow.

With a colorful set and costumes under bright lights, the entire project is entrancing. Jay Crowder's exceptionally supportive orchestrations for percussion, electric keyboard and reeds help each of the songs make their points in the story clearly and enjoyably. Michael J. Bobbitt's dances provide energy and movement. At mid-point of the second act, when the children seem just on the edge of becoming bored, Nealy has a scene in which he asks the audience for help in staging the emperor's parade. He has everyone stand and march and mime various band instruments and parade animals ("bang your hands together like you have cymbals. Prance like a horse, now.") This gets the children right back into the show.

Music by Stephen Flaherty. Book and lyrics for "The Emperor's New Clothes" by Lynn Ahrens. Words for "The Lorax" by Lynn Ahrens and Dr. Seuss. Directed by Nick Olcott. Musical direction and orchestrations by Jay Crowder. Choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt. Design: Jos. B. Musumeci, Jr. (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Marisa "Za" Johns (properties) A. J. Guban (lights) Matthew M. Nielsen (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) William E. Cruttenden, III (stage manager). Cast: Bernie Alston, Priscilla Cuellar, Ryan Nealy, Bobby Smith, Danny Tippett.

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June 27 - August 12, 2007
The Araboolies of Liberty Street
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:25 - one intermission
An acrobatic musical fable for kids 4 - 8

Click here to buy the book

Kids sat entranced at a recent Thursday morning performance of this world premiere musical in which an eccentric, colorful, acrobatic, non-English speaking family moves into a staid, quiet neighborhood. The effect on young audiences is predictable, for the show is designed specifically for children. As with all the shows at Imagination Stage, this isn't a grown-up style musical with a few kid-pleasing gimmicks thrown in. It is a story for kids from a book for kids staged with kids in mind. It gets going a little slowly as the drabness of the world which is about to be turned upside down is established, and it gets a bit preachy with its message about freedom and individuality. But once the fun-loving, energetic "Araboolies" arrive and start shaking things up, the on-stage world becomes bright, colorful and lively and it captures the attention of kids of a wide range in ages. When the cast begins tossing big plastic balls into the house (slightly under-inflated so little hands could grip them) the entire audience perks up even further.

Storyline: Childless General and Mrs. Pinch keep discipline sharp in a neighborhood where children aren't allowed any fun at all. Then a group of acrobatic, fun loving "Araboolies" who speak no English move into one of the drab grey houses that all look alike. They paint their house in bright colors, scamper about with gymnastic enthusiasm and teach the children how to have fun. When General Pinch calls in the Army and orders them to remove the house that is "different" the children paint all their own houses bright colors too. Now it is the grey Pinch house that is "different" and the Army removes it and its residents.

The script sticks pretty close to the original structure of the story with the drabness of life on Liberty Street established through military-like exercise formations for the children who must obey a great number of repressive rules. As that world gets shaken up, the audience seemed to get more and more involved. Our three-year-old granddaughter ate it up even though she's a year younger than the lower end of the age group the theater recommends, while the group of eight and even nine year olds from a day camp who occupied one side of Imagination Stage's marvelously designed theater were quite taken by all the scampering up on the stage.

Gia Mora makes a marvelously stuffy Mrs. Pinch, the over-controlling biddy who hates anything fun. She's teamed with Howard Stregack as the General. He doubles as the Araboolies' mother in wig and fat-suit that keeps the doubling from being confusing to youngsters in the audience. The children of Liberty Street are Miriam Liora Ganz, Shannon Listo and Caroline Ashbaugh O'Neill, each bringing enough individuality to their roles that they are believable as a group of friends. Felicia Curry is the first of the Araboolies on the scene and she charms the audience quickly. When she begins to clamber over the set she carries the audience along for a romp that picks up speed as more and more Araboolies show up.

The drab world of pre-Araboolie Liberty Street is created with four identical grey houses very like the illustrations in the original book. Using an age old theatrical trick which we won't reveal here, the conversion to bright colors is a great deal of fun even for the adults in the audience. The recorded orchestral accompaniment picks up the pace at just the right moments and gives the cast a boost when they need it. There is one plot point/set piece that troubles us, however. At one point Mrs. Pinch is confined in a refrigerator on the street. With all the effort given to warn children about getting into abandoned refrigerators and asking adults to make sure that refrigerators aren't abandoned with their doors attached, this seemed an unfortunate choice for inclusion in the story.

Music by Kim D. Sherman. Book and lyrics by Sam Swope based on his book. Directed by Janet Stanford. Music direction by George Fulginiti-Shakar. Orchestrations by Fitz Patton. Acrobatic choreography by Robert Dion. Dance choreography by Veronika Farkas. Design: James Kronzer (set) Melanie A. Clark (costumes) Michael S. Kay (properties) Dan Covey (lights) Scott Suchman (photography) Kristen J. Bishel (stage manager). Cast: Felicia Curry, Miriam Liora Ganz, Brian Lee Huynh, Timothy Dale Lewis, Shannon Listo, Gia Mora, Caroline Ashbaugh O'Neill, Howard Stregack.

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November 25, 2005 - January 15, 2006

Reviewed December 18
Running time 1:40 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a marvelous introduction to the magic of live theater
Appropriate for children age four and up
Click here to buy the CD

Audiences – especially young audiences – always seem to have a good time at Seussical. On Broadway, where it got poor reviews and became a topic of derision among supposedly “with it” adult theatergoers, the Richard Rodgers Theatre always seemed to be full of kids having a great time. On tour, where it sold more tickets but not quite enough to keep it going, theaters such as the Hippodrome were filled with bright young faces smiling and nodding in tempo with the up-beat tunes. Perhaps it has now found its proper milieu, for the principal creators of the piece, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens of Ragtime and Once on this Island fame, have developed a slimmed down version specifically for the kind of the theaters that cater to exactly the audience members who seem to respond most to the piece – kids!

Storyline: The Cat in the Hat leads young Jo-Jo on an adventure in Whoville while Horton the Elephant sits on the egg that Mayzie the Lazy Bird has abandoned and Gertrude McFuzz tries to get him to notice her.

The show is almost entirely sung, with an occasional spoken couplet in Seussian rhyme. As such, the entire multi-story plot is communicated through the songs of the best of the new crop of Broadway composer/lyricist teams, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Ahrens’ lyrics are so "Seussian" that it would be impossible for anyone to determine which lines are lifted from the good doctor’s books and which were written by her specifically for the show. Flaherty’s music is unfailingly melodic with a wide variety of beats and feelings. The score was without a doubt the best thing about the Broadway version and it has been retained with only minor modification. Here it is performed by the cast supported by recorded orchestral accompaniment, which, while lacking some of the energy and excitement of live music, has the benefit of being a fuller sound than might be had from the smaller band that the theater might have to use to meet the economics of offering a children's show for as little as $10.

Rob McQuay's Horton the Elephant is touchingly true to his word. After all, he explains, "I meant what I said and I said what I meant - an elephant's faithful - one hundred percent" to encapsulate just one of the value lessons that are at the heart of the show. Mollie Clement, a young actress whose work as Helen Keller in The Arlington Players' The Miracle Worker was astonishingly effective, proves her ability to take on lighter, more musical tasks as the young Jo-Jo who loves a good think ("Oh, the thinks you can think!"). On the day we reviewed the show, Joel Reuben Ganz filled in as the Cat in the Hat, while still managing to double up on his usual role as the Mayor of Whoville, which worked quite well indeed. The rest of the cast includes strong voices including the belting powers of Priscilla Cuellar (the Sour Kangaroo) Jennifer Anderson (Gertrude McFuzz) and especially Patricia Hurley (Mayzie La Bird).

Director Kathryn Chase Bryer made the right decision when she inserted an intermission half way through what Flaherty and Ahrens describe as a one act version of the show. She takes a break at about 40 minutes in, with almost 20 minutes for the kids to "get the wiggles out" and use the bathrooms. They return enthusiastically anticipating the final 40 minutes and aren't disappointed.

Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Book by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Co-conceived by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Eric Idle. Based on the works of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt. Musical direction by Keith Tittermary. Design: Milagros Ponce de León (set) Melanie Clark (costumes) R. Scott Hengen (properties) Jason Arnold (lights) Kristen J. Bishel (stage manager). Cast: Jennifer Andersen, Mollie Clement, Brianne Cobuzzi, Cyana Cook, Priscilla Cuellar, Joel Reuben Ganz, LC Harden, Jr. Patricia Hurley, Rob McQuay, Michael Mejia, Doug Sanford.

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June 25 - August 14, 2005
James and the Giant Peach

Reviewed August 2
Running time 1:15 - no intermission
A musical for kids ages 4 and up
starring a kid of eleven

Click here to buy the book

The rest of the residents of the giant peach in Roald Dahl's story may be played by adults, but the title role of the lad who sails the Atlantic with a crew including an earthworm, a ladybug and a centipede, is played by a young actor with whom the youngsters in the audience can identify. As director Kathryn Chase Bryer pointed out in the announcement of this production, it is good "that children in the audience will watch a child portray the hero and save the adults around him." What's more, James is an intelligent and resourceful person, and as portrayed by 11 year old Peter Vance, one that is a fine role model for youngsters.

Storyline: James is orphaned at a tender age and taken in and taken advantage of by a mean aunt and uncle. He accidentally spills a bag of magic crystals on their peach tree and its single fruit grows to humongous proportions, as do the insects and other small creatures that had been living on or near the tree or in the peach. Together they all escape from the mean aunt and uncle by riding the peach to freedom, but not before a series of adventures where James' intelligence, bravery and leadership save the day.

David Wood's stage adaptation of the story includes half a dozen songs with music by Mac Squire. Woods' script lays the story out clearly so even the youngest in the audience can follow the action without much difficulty, and the songs help give each of the tiny creatures a personality which is emphasized in Veronika Farkas' sprightly choreography. The inventive costumes of Lisa Parkel Burgess help, too, as the grasshopper, the spider and the others become distinct individuals. Unfortunately, the intermittently over-amplified sound of the show keeps some of the storytelling from working. Some background music masks dialogue while the voices of some of the characters are amplified at some times and not at others. Clearly, the production needed a sound designer and not just a sound board operator.

Peter Vance gives a clear and attractive performance as young James and each of the adults in his coterie of fantastic friends play their parts brightly and broadly to get and hold the attention of the children in the audience. Matt Dunphy, as the centipede with some 42 shoes sewn along the front of his trousers and up his coat, may be the best dancer in the bunch, and Tiffany Fillmore as the grasshopper who plays the violin has the most stage presence. The team of Kathleen Gonzales and John Sloan are the most fun as they double as the ladybug and earthworm in some scenes and the nasty aunt and uncle in others.

Director Bryer adds a few very nice touches to the production including the use of a bit of black light for special under-water effects and a children's chorus who sing and dance, operate some of the special effects such as the giant squid and the seagulls, and generally make the piece all the more accessible for the youngsters in the audience. The colorful set by Pegi Marshall-Amundsen includes the interior of the peach itself, envisioned as something like the porch of a Victorian-era home.

Written by David Wood. Based on the book by Roald Dahl. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Choreographed by Veronika Farkas. Music and musical direction by Mac Squire. Design: Pegi Marshall-Amundsen (set) Lisa Parkel Burgess (costumes) Katherine Osborne (properties) Harold F. Burgess II (lights) Stan Barouh (photography) Lindsay Miller (stage manager). Cast: Alexander Alfano, Miles Butler, Lydia Marie Carroll, Matt Dunphy, Tiffany Fillmore, Kathleen Gonzales, Lisa Lias, Grace VanDahlen Romberg, John Slone, Peter Vance, Rachel Waldman, Nick Wilkie.

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April 30 - May 29, 2005
Perfectly Persephone: Little Greek Myth

Reviewed April 30
Running time 1:40 - one intermission
Appropriate for ages 4 and up

The Greeks had a myth to explain every natural phenomenon. The story of Persephone, daughter of the King of the Gods, explained the origin of Winter. Playwright Kevin Kling, author of Lily's Purple Plastic Purse, makes her story a fable about a child's need for independence and a sense of self, while using her journey across the river Styx into the underworld as an excuse for adventure, humor and a few lessons about duty and friendship. Using a cast of performers with and without disabilities, the production has a few lessons of its own, which are delivered without any peachiness. 

Storyline: Every Greek god has a gift. The young daughter of Zeus and Demeter, Persephone, is perfect. But she's tired of perfection and wants to experience a more complicated life. She travels to the underground where dead souls go, only to find out she may not be able to return to the world. Her mother has become so troubled by her absence that her fear has taken the heat out of the world, creating snow and ice. Zeus concocts a compromise between Persephone's reluctance to return and Demeter's chilling effect - Persephone will go to visit her friends in the underworld three months each year which will bring on winter but she will return each spring bringing warmth and light back to earth.

The spunky, funny and touching performance of Suzanne Richard is the best thing about the production. She earns the affection of the kids in the audience with her first knowing glance in their direction, which says to each of them "hey, lets have an adventure together! Ready?" She mixes enough humor, curiosity, fear and affection into her performance that even the youngest kids respond, while the adults who accompany the kids find her a treat to watch.

Some of the younger children will find it necessary to ask the adults a few questions during the rather confusing first act, but things pick up considerably after intermission. Perhaps that is because the better special effects of lighting and costuming come during the second act, but the real reason seems to be the performance of Peter Wylie, who seems a bit underutilized in the first act but comes into his own as both the god of fire and crafts, and as a three-headed dog (or "doggie," as the four year old to my right explained to his father).

Fahir Atakoglu provides music which is amplified at a level that makes it difficult to understand what the actors are saying or singing, and the production includes a few confusing effects. However, the colorful set and costumes under Colin K. Bills' dramatic lighting gives the show a feeling of a special event for the children in the audience, and the warmth of Suzanne Richard's performance carries the day.

Written by Kevin Kling. Directed by Janet Stanford. Music by Fahir Atakoglu. Choreography by Patty Krauss. Design: Milagros Ponce de Leon (set) Kate Turner-Walker (costumes) Dreama Greaves (properties) Colin K. Bills (lights) Stan Barouh (photography) Katherine C. Mielke (stage manager). Cast: Stephanie Burden, Kimberly Parker Green, John Peter Illarramendi, Millie Langford, Rob McQuay, Suzanne Richard, Linden Tailor, Peter Wylie.

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February 26 - April 2, 2005
Callisto 5

Reviewed February 26
Running time 2:05 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a theater experience that will engage and entertain kids 9-14
Click here to buy the script

Imagination Stage expands its target audience to include pre- and early teens above age 9 with this computer-game inspired staging of a science fiction play by noted British author Alan Ayckbourn. It is a very successful launch of their new pre-teen series and should provide parents of kids in that age group with a rare opportunity to take them to theater to see a show specifically designed to please them. From set to costumes to projections to sound design, the entire package is
a mixture of X-Box, Play Station and Game Cube while the acting is designed to engage the kids and involve them in the rather simplistic but nonetheless serviceable plot.

Storyline: 17 year old Jem was left alone in an outpost on Callisto, Jupiter's second largest moon, when his parents went to the aid of another outpost. That was eight years ago and he's still under the care of a talking computer and a robot programmed to be his baby-sitter and feed him macaroni and cheese every night. He's outgrown their care (and his taste for macaroni and cheese) but they were never programmed for the parent's prolonged absence. He spends most of his time playing computer games and, when sensors indicate the outpost is under attack, he uses the skills he has developed to save the outpost in the hope that his parents will finally return.  

The script dates to 1990 but it doesn't feel dated in this straight forward production. The author is sometimes referred to as the Neil Simon of Great Britain due to his prolific output of comedies for adult audiences such as Absurd Person Singular and the book and lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber's By Jeeves. His approach here is to concentrate on clear plot development and to create a central character - the teenage Jem - with whom his intended audience can identify. While the emphasis on combat skills from computer games might seem pitched to younger boys rather than girls, there is enough character development and exploration of the bonding between human and machine and the underlying story of family relationships that the piece is bound to offer something to please both genders.

That near-universal appeal is helped by the casting of Eben Kuhns as the stranded youngster. With his shock of blond hair, tall lanky build and what used to be called "chiseled features," the kid is a hunk. He handles himself on stage with a cool but not at all detached sense of assurance, and demonstrates a combination of manly command and juvenile vulnerability. Most of his stage time is spent with Michael John Casey as the degenerating baby-sitting robot. Casey uses all the moves of a robot dance combined with comic mime to get laughs early in the show but either Casey or director Eric Johnson (or both) know that such shtick can be tiresome and they bring the comedy level down and increase the human connection at just the right time. The script provides enough second-half intrigue to keep the interest level high. In a strange directorial touch, however, Johnson delays the final hug between Kuhns and Casey after a plot driven transformation which we won't disclose. That delay robs that final transformation effect of its emotional impact, however, and the show ends with an awkward moment or two. Still, what went before will have given the intended audience the experience of being drawn into and emotionally touched by live theater.

Special effects are important in this technological tale and the team here delivers the goods. The set is a theme park ride version of a space station with a central rotating captain's chair a-la Star Trek before a large video screen on which Adam Larsen's filmed computer game/system sensors/video monitor projections are effectively displayed, accompanied by Paul James Pendergast's sharp sound effects. An intriguing decision of director Johnson and his designers is to allow Kuhns a full range of motion with a hand held video camera that plays in the plot with its output displayed on screen. When he's pointing the camera upstage, the projection screen shows segments of the set but when he's pointing it downstage toward the audience, the projection shows the wall that would be at the edge of the set. It wasn't an easy thing to pull off technically but it works to enhance the feeling that the audience is watching events in a real space station and not just on a stage.

Written by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Eric Johnson. Design: Robert Klingelhoefer (set) Adam Larsen (film and projections) Franklin Labovitz (costumes) Debbie Dunlop (properties) Alexander Cooper (lights) Paul James Pendergast (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Katherine C. Mielke (stage manager). Cast: Michael John Casey, Eben Kuhns, Amy McWilliams, Emma Stone.

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June 30 - August 8, 2004
Merlin and the Cave of Dreams

Reviewed July 21
Running time 1:30 - one intermission
Appropriate for children age seven and up
A Potomac Stages Pick for a marvelous introduction to the magic of live theater

Click here to buy King Arthur: How History is Invented

A new version of the legend of Arthur, who is guided by Merlin the Wizard in his preparation for royal duties, receives its world premiere under the direction of Mary Hall Surface. She gives Charles Way's intelligent and extremely well constructed script a sumptuous production with special effects galore, sharp performances by a skilled cast and an attention to story-telling detail that will carry children and adults alike through the short piece without ever seeming to have over-simplified for the youngest. To assure maximum enjoyment, however, bring along a long sleeve shirt or sweater as the house is kept at a very cool temperature. Better that the goose bumps should be induced by the thrills of the show - and they are many - than by the excess of air conditioning.

Storyline: Young Arthur is an adopted child being raised by the couple he thought were his mother and father. A mysterious magician appears in a dream to tell him that the King has just died. He now must learn the truth of his past and seek his destiny.

The secret of the extraordinary success of this production on all levels is its respect for its audience. Nothing is "dumbed down" under the false assumption that kids won't get it if its too complex. Instead, the production clearly revels in the fact that the story is more complex and involved than a Saturday morning television cartoon, and that its messages are embedded in a story that has intrigued adults and children alike for centuries. Perhaps it is the fact that the playwright is British (he's a member of the Welsh Academy of Authors) that imbues the piece with respect for its subject, but it is the treatment by Mary Hall Surface that is reflected in the respect for the audience.

The production announces its seriousness from the opening moment when Jason Lott delivers the opening intonement ("How long ago it was. It was long ago, in the time of swords. When men wore the skins of beasts upon their backs and hunted the deep woods with bows and spears.") with a formality that matches the language. Soon, however, Evan Casey and Scott Kerns are exchanging youthful jibes as young Arthur and the boy he believes is his older brother. Both Casey and Kerns bring a youthful gaiety and humor to their roles that make the kids and the adults in the audience immediately like them and identify with their adventures.

Adventures there are, as Arthur seeks to visit both his birth parents beyond the grave by traveling to the Cave of Dreams. Tony Cisek has devised a splendidly simple but effective set which basks in Dan Covey's atmospheric lighting. Whoever gets credit for the lighting effects which come up through the floor should take a separate bow.

Written by Charles Way. Directed by Mary Hall Surface. Stage combat by E. Lorraine Ressegger. Design: Tony Cisek (set) Kate Turner Walker (costumes) Dreama Greaves (properties) Marie Schneggenburger (masks) Dan Covey (lights) Kevin Hill (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Rebecca Berlin (stage manager). Cast: Evan Casey, Saskia de Vries, Jewel Greenberg, Scott Kerns, Lisa Lias, Jason Lott, Dave McLellan, Eric Messner, Joe Pindelski, Alia Faith Williams.

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April 3 - May 16, 2004
Liang and the Magic Paint Brush

Reviewed April 12
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes
Appropriate for children age four and up.

Imagination Stage puts all the features of their new facility to good use in this world premiere of an experiment in visual theater based on a Chinese fairytale about the power of goodness and innocence. They could not have accomplished this in their old storefront theater in White Flint Mall. Here, in addition to the ability to bring actors up from below the stage, they have all the light and sound equipment they need for controlled effects, including digital media projections, to enhance the magic of live performance. It is charming and captures the imagination of the children in the audience while adults will find the performance techniques and the special effects almost as interesting as the story itself.

Storyline: The Emperor of ancient China has two passions: painting and collecting taxes. A poor young man sees him using his paint brush to create images and wants to learn how to paint too. He travels to the capitol city but is rejected by jealous students in the art academy when he shows real talent for painting. A dragon appears to him in a dream and gives him a magic paint brush with which he can paint objects that magically become real. He creates tools to help the peasants do their work, animals to pull the plows and carry the crops and musical instruments to bring them songs. The Emperor, however, wants the magic paint brush to create unlimited gold coins.

Director Eric M. Johnson has avoided the trap of so many so-called "multi-media" productions and kept the tricks of image projection, sound effects, lighting effects and all the other high-tech gimmickry subservient to story-telling and strong stage performances. The credit in the program reads "conceived by Janet Stanford and Eric M. Johnson in collaboration with the company" but the collaboration bears the unmistakable stamp of a controlled effort where someone kept things from flying off in every direction. This is a very focused presentation and, as a result, keeps the attention of even the youngest members of the audience.

Using mime, movement and sign language, as well as the more technical elements of digital projection, the cast of seven get the kids to follow the idea that what Liang is painting with his magic brush is springing to life on the stage. When Andres Otalora as the title character moves his brush in a larger-than-life motion describing a pattern in the air, that pattern is repeated on the screen behind him, becoming a pictogram of an object such as a horse that seems a mixture of Chinese characters and the real thing. Then the rest of the cast enact that object in a series of effects that bring it to life. They create a flying insect, a frog, a rabbit, a snake as well as the horse.

Otalora is a charming hero and Fred Michael Beam a humorous and non-threatening villain. The ensemble creates a number of clear characterizations as peasants, art students and even animals and trees. (Al Twanmo makes a very appealing frog.) The hybrid of sign language, mime, song and dance which the team has concocted gets all their story across with a simple charm.

Conceived by Janet Stanford and Eric M. Johnson in collaboration with the company. Directed by Eric M. Johnson. Choreographed by Fred Michael Beam. Design: Robert Klingelhoefer (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Sara Nelson (properties) Adam Larsen (lights and projections) Marcia Daft and Keith Tittermary (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Katherine C. Mielke (stage manager) Cast: Bianca Aabel, Fred Michael Beam, David Gaines, Kathy Hankins, Andres Otalora, Tuyet Thi Pham, Al Twanmo.

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January 31 - March 7, 2004
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters

Reviewed February 7
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes

It doesn’t have to be Black History Month for this delightful African Cinderella-like story to be a good show to take a young child or two to see, but it doesn’t hurt either. It has energy, color and narrative clarity as it tells a simple but intriguing story through narration, dance, simple scenes and a touch of audience participation. Kids four to seven or eight seemed swept along while a few kids up to about twelve seemed interested enough to be enjoying themselves, if not completely enthralled.

Storyline: Two daughters of an African villager must make the trek to the neighboring capital city because the King has issued a call for all eligible maidens to come to the palace so he can choose one to marry and make his Queen. One daughter, selfish and dissatisfied with life in the village, takes unfair advantage of her sister by setting out at night to get a head start. The father brings the other daughter, a positive and dutiful young girl, to the palace. Guess which one the King chooses.

Karen Abbott adapted the book by John Steptoe, providing a script that is careful to lay out each important point in the story so that children can easily follow along. At the matinee we attended we heard very few parents explaining events to their children. The kids seemed to get it without explanations. This, of course, speaks well for the direction of Jennifer L. Nelson in keeping the focus where it needs to be. Nelson also keeps the pace and energy level high enough that the older kids don’t get bored while waiting for the younger ones to catch on. It isn’t an easy task to find that common ground between four year olds and kids twice their age. But here it seems to have been found.

The cast is very good, with Erika Rose and Thembi Duncan creating very different characters for the two sisters. Rose avoids excessive sweetness and Duncan excessive negatives, and they seem to have a genuine sisterly bond that comes across to the kids in the audience, many of whom seem to be there with their own siblings. Charles Wellington Young makes a dignified and caring father figure, while Jefferson A. Russell both narrates as the storyteller and plays the King in a number of guises. Add the energetic dancing of Vanessa Allegra and Typhena Wade, and you have a fine afternoon’s entertainment.

Milagros Ponce de Leon has designed a very attractive set surrounded by a proscenium decked out in African geometric patterns and featuring a revolving structure that is alternately the family’s hut in the village and the trees of the woods. She doesn’t use up too much of the floor space so there is plenty of room for the dancing and for the actors to come downstage to engage the kids in the audience. It also gives Russell plenty of floor space around which to manipulate a distinctly non-threatening rod puppet of a snake.

Written by Karen Abbott based on the book by John Steptoe. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Choreography by Marcia Howard. Design: Milagros Ponce de Leon (set) LeVonne Lindsay (costumes) Sara Nelson (properties) Harold F. Burgess II (lights) Romero Wyatt (musical direction and sound) Stan Barouh (photography)  Katherine C. Mielke (stage manager). Cast: Vanessa Allegra, Thembi Duncan, Erika Rose, Jefferson A. Russell, Typhena Wade, Charles Wellington Young.

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November 15, 2003 - January 11, 2004
Miss Nelson Has a Field Day

Reviewed December 13
Running time 1 hour 25 minutes

Two years ago this children's theater company presented the world premiere of a bright and lively musical adapted from a popular book about a teacher’s unorthodox solution to problems of classroom behavior. Now the same team of Joan Cushing, Kathryn Chase Bryer and Deborah Wicks La Puma mounts the world premiere of a sequel based on another of the books by Harry Allard and James Marshall. The first, Miss Nelson Is Missing, seemed almost too good for its small shopping mall storefront theater where the company then performed. Now, the sequel seems almost good enough for the new 430 seat facility the company moved into in the meantime. It is still bright and lively but it spreads out a bit too thinly, lasts a bit long for the youngest members of the audience and misses the sense of direct connection with the audience that made the first one so special. What is more, it even violates the line some parents would expect for a show advertised as being suitable for ages 4 and up, with both dialogue and lyrics about “kicking butt.”

Storyline: Good and kindly teacher Miss Nelson again adopts the disguise of mean taskmaster “Viola Swamp” in order to get the kids at Smedley Elementary School to behave themselves. This time it is the kids on the school’s intramural football team that need help. After the ninth game of the season they have yet to score a point. Then “Coach Swamp” takes over to motivate them and they only loose the next game by 14 to 3, after actually scoring a field goal. Can you guess what happens at the next, and final, game?

In this age of kid’s soccer teams starting up at kindergarten, it seems a bit anachronistic that the “football” being played by this elementary school team is the variety played by the Redskins - although it could be said that once Miss Nelson’s alter-ego took over, they played it better than the Redskins did this weekend! Many of the kids in the audience seemed enthralled by the movement and activity, especially some of the broader humor such as a coach floundering around in diver’s flippers, and they all seemed to grasp the concepts of loosing, scoring and winning.

Joan Cushing’s book is clear and the plot easy to follow, even for those not particularly schooled in this kind of football. (The vagaries of 3 point field goals and 7 point touchdowns are skimmed over.) She builds in some catchy songs including a cheerleader’s chant (“Go Tornadoes”) a comic lament (“Doom and Gloom”) a recap of the material covered in the original show (“The Legend of Viola Swamp”) and a lesson song involving the stories of Columbus and Harriet Tubman (“So Would You”). Some other songs seem less driven by the needs of the story (a teacher’s hopes and dreams number, “Imagine,” works fairly well but the “Calypso” about a Caribbean vacation is a bit of a stretch).

The cast of six features Tara Giordano as a cheerleader who gets the audience excited at the start of the show, Richard Bradbury in the dual role of the coach and the principal, and Dawn Ursula as the sweet Miss Nelson and the stern “Viola Swamp.” They and the three team members, including one who doubles in another role, play their scenes on a forced perspective football field in a variety of strongly colored costumes. Choreographer Veronika Farkas turns the game sequences into a series of highlights and bloopers with some nifty slow motion effects which the kids in the audience obviously enjoyed.

Book, music and lyrics by Joan Cushing. Based on the book by Harry Allard with illustrations by James Marshall. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Music direction and orchestrations by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Choreography by Veronika Farkas. Design: Greg Mitchell (set) Marietta Greene-Hambrick (costumes) Sara Nelson (properties) Steve Hambrick (lights) Stan Barouh (photography) Katherine C. Mielke (stage manager). Cast: Richard Bradbury, Tara Giordano, Alexander George, Tim Tourbin, Dawn Ursula, Steve Wannall.

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September 13 - October 19, 2003
Roald Dahl's The BFG

Reviewed September 13
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes

The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) has a BCS (Big Colorful Set), a lot of  BGMs (Big Giant Masks) and a CLP (Cute Little Puppet), all of which intermittently entrance and entertain kids of the target age (ages 4 and up) in a program that goes just a bit slowly and just a bit too long for the younger kids. Since the story involves a defense against BBGs (Big Bad Giants) who eat children, it is a good thing that the show begins with a hostess introducing one of the actors who puts on his mask on stage so even the youngest know right from the start that the giants are a trick of theater and not a real threat.

Storyline: Smart and spunky Sophie sneaks out of bed in her orphanage in the middle of the night and looks out the window. She sees a Giant on his rounds as the world’s dream distributor. Since people aren’t supposed to see the giants, he has to take her back to Giant Land with him. It turns out he is a Big Friendly Giant but there are also Big Bad Giants who eat children. Sophie enlists the BFG in an approach to the Queen of England to help defeat the bad giants.

The people of Imagination Stage are obviously thrilled with their new space and they are just learning how to stretch their wings with its impressive capabilities. Last year they were putting on their shows in a storefront in White Flint Mall, using imagination to turn it into a theater. Now they have a big (437 seat) formal theater which accommodates sets at least twice the size of the old playing space. It allows special effects that used to be impossible. As they mount additional shows they will learn more and more about what works and what doesn’t.

Not all of the effects in this show work well and a helicopter effect they touted in pre-show publicity must have malfunctioned on opening night. But the effects that do work include a number of magical moments. For instance, the story opens with life-size Elisabeth Marinelli as the heroine Sophie in the orphanage. When she goes to the back wall to look out a window, the stage rotates showing a model of the outside of the orphanage with one window open and the puppet Sophie peering out. Even the youngest child in the audience immediately understands the switch in scale. Later, when a Giant head appears in a regular sized window, the connection is just as easily made.

The colorful sets and costumes, the inventive masks and puppetry (at a number of different scales) and the energetic performances all work well for the intended audience. Eric M. Messner is both funny and fun as the non-threatening BFG and Lisette LeCompte is very good as the Queen of England. But the book drags at times as a number of bits go on beyond the attention span of many and parents who object to the scarier elements of some traditional fairytales may wish for less emphasis on the child eating giants storyline. The kids, on the other hand, are probably going to retain stronger memories of that old standby of juvenile humor, the fart joke or, as it is called here, whizpopping, which goes on at great lengths to the great delight at least of the boys approaching ten.

Written by David Wood based on the book by Roald Dahl. Directed by Janet Stanford. Choreographed by Charlotte Summers. Design: Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden (set) Peter Zakutansky (costumes) Kate Mielke (properties) Matthew Pauli (masks and puppets) Jason Arnold (lights) Dan Schrader (sound) Tricia Erdmann (stage manager). Cast: Melissa Princess Best, Reggie Harris, Lisette LeCompte, Elisabeth Marinelli, Eric M. Messner, Barbara Papendorp, Matthew Pauli, John Slone.

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July 1 – August 24, 2003
Junie B. Jones &
A Little Monkey Business

Reviewed July 17
Running time 1 hour 20 minutes

Potomac Stages Pick

At Potomac Stages we have recommended many shows for a marvelous evening of theater. It is a pleasure, then, to recommend a fabulous show for a marvelous morning of theater. This brief but bright, tuneful and oh-so-fun musical plays at 10:30 in the morning on weekdays and afternoons on weekends at the new home of Imagination Stage in Bethesda. If you have kids, we suggest you take them with you but, whether or not you have kids, go yourselves - it’s a kick.

Storyline: Kindergartner Junie B. (“it stands for Beatrice but I just like the B and that’s all”) Jones has two big problems. First her mother is going to have a “b-a-b-y” leading Junie, who has always been “number one” in her parent’s heart, to wonder “Which Number Will I Be Now?”  Then her teacher asks everyone to bring something special for Show and Tell and Junie can’t think of anything. But, when the baby is born and her grandmother informs her that her new brother is “the cutest little monkey” she determines to take him to Show and Tell . . . after all, no one else can actually have a monkey for a brother!

Joan Cushing, who gave us the delightful Miss Nelson is Missing at Imagination Stage’s old storefront theater in White Flint Mall last season, has created a musical of uncommon strength within the format of a children’s show. The single-act book is a solid piece of theater, the characters are distinct and clearly drawn, the music is bright where it should be bright, clever where it should be cleaver and emotionally charged where that is appropriate. The lyrics are literate within the constraints of a youngster’s vocabulary giving adults lots to enjoy while carrying children as far along in the word-play as their maturity allows.

Imagination Stage gives the show a first rate production with a cast of standouts. Sherri L. Edelen, who won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Musical for Side Show at Signature Theatre a few years back, creates a spunky kindergarten character for Junie. She establishes rapport with the kids in the audience, turning to them to define some of the words the adult characters use (“’We’ll see’ is another word for ‘no.’") and she maintains the character right on through the curtain call. The score doesn’t give her a spot to use her impressive ability to belt out a show-stopper, but that is appropriate for a small ensemble show that can’t afford to be stopped.

That ensemble includes such Potomac Region favorites as Michael L. Forrest as both Junie’s sentimentally satisfying grandfather and a 'meanie' of a classmate and Toni Rae Brotons as her mother and as a stuck up classmate. Then there is a young veteran of Broadway, Monique L. Midgette, as her best friend. Musical director Deborah Wicks La Puma achieves an effective blend of the voices for full-cast numbers such as “The World According to Me,” trios such as “Bestest Friends” and duets like “Sometimes.” The entire package is a delight.

Book, music and lyrics by Joan Cushing. Based on the book by Barbara Park. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Musical direction by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Choreography by Michael J. Bobbitt. Design: Greg Mitchell (set) Michele Reisch (costumes) Sara Nelson (props) Ayun Fedorcha (lights) Stan Barouh (photography) Katherine C. Mielke (stage manager). Cast: Tony Rae Brotons, Sherri L. Edelen, Michael L. Forrest, Monique L. Midgett, Sandra L. Murphy, Steve Wannall.

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April 5 - June 1, 2003

Reviewed April 13
Running time 1 hour 5 minutes

The last show to play this store-front in White Flint Mall before BAPA’s Imagination Stage moves into its new digs in Bethesda is a fitting finale to the years of bright, colorful, comic and tuneful entertainment that kids have enjoyed here over the years. A new musical by Marta Kauffman, David Crade and Michael Skloff has lots of material that will entertain the kids and just a dash of sophistication to keep the adults from boredom.

Storyline: This “once upon a time” finds a couple coveting the goodies in the garden of the witch next door. The witch catches the husband stealing from her and demands their first born child. The child turns out to be a daughter who she keeps locked in a tall tower. A handsome prince discovers that the secret to gaining access to the tower is to call to the girl “Rapunzel, let down your hair to me” and he successfully woos the girl. All ends happily after some thoroughly non-threatening complications are cleared away.

The mix of musical scenes and comedy dialogue is such that the show never seems to loose the attention of the kids. Starting off with a series of bright songs to set story and character in motion, a couple of spoken scenes kick in just before the older children might start to wonder why everyone only sings. Director Janet Stanford avoids loosing any of the younger children's attention by moving the action around the stage while the performers address the audience directly as narration or play to the kids with broad humor.

The cast is quite a delight with Karl Kippola seeming to stand out a bit. His multi-role performance could be confusing to younger children if it weren’t for the clarity of his approach to introducing the newer roles. Sandra L. Murphy as the witch not only avoids being scary, she also avoids being pitiable which is so often the fate of those who sanitize a scary role. Stephon Walker and Stephanie Burden make a good couple as the Prince and Rapunzel.

We took children ages 5 and 7 with us to the performance to get their perspective on the show. Robert thought the show was “great” while Jake was surprised it was so funny since we had told him it was musical but hadn’t mentioned it was a comedy. He said he was glad it was both musical and funny. We adults agreed with the kids.

Book and lyrics by David Crane and Marta Kauffman. Music by Michael Skloff. Directed by Janet Stanford. Musical direction and arrangements by Deborah Wicks LaPuma. Choreography by Michael J. Bobbitt. Design: Greg Mitchell (set) Michele Reisch (costumes)  Lisette LeCompte (properties) Katherine C. Mielke (stage manager). Cast: Stephanie Burden, Karl Kippola, Sandra L. Murphy, Stephon Walker.

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February 15 – March 23, 2003
Cinderella Eats Rice & Beans: A Salsa Fairytale

Reviewed February 15
Running time 1 hour

The next-to-last production in BAPA’s storefront theater in White Flint Mall is a new musical that once again creates that amiable attraction of live theater for tots with color, music, resolute good humor, and an informality that puts the kids at ease without lessening the sense of excitement over a special event. The kids sit on the floor before a low stage with most of the parents or older siblings sitting in the chairs at the back while the cast makes magic under the bright lights.

Storyline: A young girl from Puerto Rico is an exchange student at Pumpkin Grove Elementary School where, with the aid of a fairy-godfather-in-training, she enters Coach Prince’s Basketball contest and overcomes the resentment of her host-family’s daughter to win acceptance and friendship in a new land. For his success at helping her find happiness, the fairy-godfather-in-training finally wins his wings.

Karen Zacarias takes this multi-cultural spin on the Cinderella story and gives it just enough twists to keep it from feeling stale. What is more, she peppers the script with touches meant to entertain the adults while the story zips along at a pace just right for the youngsters. There were a good number of chuckles from the back rows as Mando Alvarado, a good natured and helpful fairy-godfather-in-training pulled out a big yellow “Fairy Godparenting For Dummies” volume in which to look up what he should do in a jam.

Salza with a touch of hip-hop marks the score by Deborah Wicks La Puma. The pre-recorded accompaniment keeps the four member cast moving right along even if a line or two get left in the rush. No matter, for the overall effect is bright, cheerful and tuneful. Most of the kids won’t leave singing the songs but they will be bobbing a bit with the infectious rhythms.

Alvarado leads the cast in a role that combines the narrator function with a prime mover of the action. He even pulls out a magic remote control and pauses the rest of the cast to have time to explain it all. The two young women, Michelle Vignoli as the Puerto Rican exchange student and Patricia Penn in the stepsister-ish role are both bright and energetic but it is Ricardo Frederick Evans as their school friend/cheerleader who really turns the energy level up. All together, they give the kids a fun hour and the older folk find a lot to enjoy as well.

Book and lyrics by Karen Zacarias. Music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Choreographed by Veronika Farkas. Design: Barbara Brennan (set) Susan Chiang (costumes) Mark Anduss (sound) Stan Barouh (photo). Cast: Mando Alvarado, Ricardo Frederick Evans, Michelle Vignoli, Patricia Penn.

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March 23 – June 16, 2002
Aladdin's Luck

Reviewed April 13
Running time 1 hour

Splashes of color, energetic performances and an interesting musical score capture and keep the attention of young children in this original play by Janet Stanford which is receiving its world premiere. However, there are some difficulties in the storytelling that may confuse a few of the older children who try to follow the plot rather than simply enjoy the performance.

Storyline: The low-born Aladdin tries to capture the lamp with a wish-granting genie trapped inside. He wants it in order to attract the attention of the royal princess. It turns out, however, that she is not impressed by material wealth or by the power to make wishes come true. She’s much more interested in Aladdin for himself and wants him to return the lamp to its former owner. Aladdin learns his lesson, but he doesn’t want to return the lamp to the evil Al Zarnati. Instead, he sets the genie free.

Rahmein Mostafavi makes a fine young Aladdin and he sparks some real interest from his princess, Tricia McCauley. Even better are Tony Gudell as the evil Al Zarnati (he seems to have a great time with a villain’s role) and Dawn Ursula in the multiple roles of Mother, Seller and a member of the chorus. She also is one of the three players who, through a distinctive and effective piece of swirling choreography and speaking in unison, become one genie.

The doubling up of characters for specific performers is one of the problems that may confuse younger audiences. Ursula’s identity as the Mother is so strongly established that her appearance in other roles makes it seem as if the Mother is pretending to be the Seller, or is present where the Mother could not be, or that she is a part of the genie. The puzzlement is compounded a bit by the fact that the story is not told in sequence but, rather, relies on flashbacks.

Turkish musician and composer Fahir Atakoglu has written an energetic and melodic score which provides both incidental background music and the music for the dances. His wife Tulin Atakoglu has devised effective choreography and it all takes place on Michael Stepowany’s spacious and colorful set. Rhonda Key has provided flowing costumes that fit the image children would expect of the Aladdin story.

Written by Janet Stanford. Music by Fahir Atakoglu. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Choreographed by Tulin Atakoglu. Design: Michael Stepowany (set) Rhonda Key (costumes.) Cast: Rahmein Mostafavi, Tricia McCauley, Dawn Ursula, Tony Gudell, Anthony Gallagher, John Slone.

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November 10, 2001 - January 13, 2002
Miss Nelson is Missing

Reviewed November 30
Running time 1 hour
Appropriate for ages four to eleven

The world premiere of this bright and lively musical for child audiences should be the start of a long life for the play. It is filled with the kind of material kids enjoy, adults endorse and theater folk like to do. Don’t take my word for it – Scott from Mrs. Kiser’s 2nd Grade Class at Greenwood Elementary School says "it was better than the book."

Storyline: School teacher Miss Nelson is having trouble maintaining order in her class, so she hatches a plan to let her students learn what it would be like with a mean substitute. The kids want their regular teacher back so much they are willing to behave themselves in order to win her return.

Joan Cushing adapted Harry Allard and James Marshall’s popular book for a cast of six, giving two the chance to perform multiple roles. Kathryn Kelley is very nice as the nice Miss Nelson and appropriately horrid as the mean substitute "Viola Swamp." Kelley’s voice carries nicely in all her "Swamp" scenes but seems a bit too weak and thin to carry all the lyrics as "Miss Nelson." Richard Bradbury is warm and witty in the narrating janitor role, broadly funny as the bumbling detective the kids turn to for help and wonderfully manic as the school’s principal.

The students are played broadly (so that their misbehavior is more mischievous than mayhem) by four young-adults who can sing and dance and charm. David Lamont Wilson has the body-language of a tyke down pat and Andrew Smith’s gangly gate seems just right. Sara Ridberg is in good voice and Bonnie Waggoner contributes strong comic faces and gestures. Together, they make a class-room full of kids that the audience full of kids can relate to and identify with.

Greg Mitchell has designed a colorful and very theatrical set using a false proscenium to enhance the feeling that this is a theater show, not a view of reality. He has painted the desks so they look like props even though they actually are school desks. Rhonda Kay’s costumes likewise emphasize the make-believe. Together, they create a brightly colored world. Add Cushing’s sprightly songs with cleaver lyrics (including a few lyrical in-jokes for the theater-literate chaperones in the audience) and the pre-recorded musical backing by Deborah Wicks La Puma and you have an hour well spent, introducing kids to the magic of theater.

Adaptation, music and lyrics by Joan Cushing. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Musical direction and arrangements by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Choreography by lynn Filusch. Design: Greg Mitchell (set) Rhonda Key (costumes.) Cast: Richard Bradbury, Kathryn Kelley, David Lamont Wilson, Sara Ridberg, Andrew Smith, Bonnie Waggoner.