Here are tongue-in-cheek “Theatre Report Cards” for kid-related shows at NYC’s Fringe Festival. Children in school (and they’ll be going back in a couple of weeks) get report cards for their parents to see how they’re doing, so here’s our version of that —- for audiences, with some of the usual categories of behavior and learning. The Fringe kid shows play at the 14th Street Y near the corner of First Avenue. See www.fringeNYC.org for details about shows for kids and other humans, tickets (which are cheaper for children and seniors, so a grandparent escort for kid audience members can be a wise budget move). The theatre playing area is wide and the large audience seating area raked. No claustrophobia here. Lighting is impressive.
NAME:——- SWASHBUCKLING SAM: THE TALE OF BLACKBEARD’S REVENGE
PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS:——- Samantha (Sam) plays well with others and is a nice, if sometimes glum, girl. While she interacts well with the pirates she plays with in her free time, her classmates have been bullying her. (In the first scene), they tease her, saying she “smells,” so one must ask about home hygiene. We understand she is also bullied because her parents recently divorced and she has been staying with her pizza-preparing papa (perhaps it’s pepperoni and garlic breath that smell?). Dad’s whose calm support is appreciated. It has been noted that Sam is tall for her age as are those she plays with, as one would think these children are adults, especially the one with the full, bushy beard that serves him better when he plays at being one of the pirates. The quirky pink fairy who appeared for an early tea party was kind of oddly intriguing, but she seemed to have wandered in from another play as she was painted with such a very different-stroked brush and then was brushed off, when one wanted a payoff for her semi-involvement.
HOMEWORK PREPARATION:——- The creators have cooperated by seeming to be prepared and offering energetic play, although more work on some costumes and other visual elements would have brought more color and excitement for some children.
WRITING SKILLS:——- The writing of Leonora Bernstein’s piece is easy-going fare with some comedy. There are some lively instances of pirate talk and a parrot –a shadow puppet —gets some good lines, too.
USES TIME WELL:——- At a relaxed 45 minutes, the show sets off to sea—where she is more accepted by playmates in the play— and sees its heroine back home.
COMMUNICATION SKILLS:——- Appropriate vocabulary and story elements for the elementary school set, though more of a set would help. The would-be moral of dealing with bullies, whether as a school child or other, could be more effective if more prominent.
ATTENTION SPAN:——- Most of the audience, which included a couple of dozen children and some adults, seemed fairly attentive for the most part, without being fully captivated. A pirate’s addressing some front-row little ones could be expanded for more audience “participation.”
FORMS APPROPRIATE RELATIONSHIPS:——- The pirates and parrot and papa work well as a team.
WORKS UP TO POTENTIAL:——- Yo-ho-ho, a little more swashbuckling would be good, but this is fine if fairly mild fare fairly engaging. Some of the seven cast members could use more adrenalin and a pacing pick-me-up.
OTHER COMMENTS:——- More zip and more running gags would be welcome, like the cutely incorporated pirate sound “ARRGHH!” incorporate as a vowel sound in common words was giggle-worthy as was the high number of “greats” when referring to Blackbeard as a great-great-great-great (Now I’ve lost count!) …. grandparent.
NAME:——-FAIRY TALE CHRISTMAS
PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS:——- Of course not; that would defeat the purpose of the fun and the method to the madness. The main characters here are VILLAINS from fairy tales. They aren’t supposed to be cooperative or kind. The evil stepmothers and the giant residing atop a certain unseen beanstalk should not even play well among themselves. But, fortunately, as actors playing those roels, they sure do! It’s a nicely meshed team.
HOMEWORK PREPARATION:——-The costumes could be more extensive. In this Christmas-set story, Santa is a central character whom the bad guys want to kidnap with a trick sleigh. But we don’t see the sleigh that might have been the one visually extravagant key prop. And, while some villainous costuming is dashing, Mr. Claus gets nothing but a Santa hat, which the actor stashes in his back pocket when he plays the narrator. The actor does have a beard, but it’s black.
WRITING SKILLS:——- Although some of the visual elements, as noted, are lean the McLean men —M. Scott McLean who wrote the dialogue and collaborated on the music and lyrics with Michael McLean—have come up with some wit, both playful and deliciously wicked, as is appropriate for wicked familiar fairy tale folks. They mean well in their meanness—I mean, making the bad guys give us a good time without being too mean-spirited. Wisely, they and director/choreographer MK Lawson ground the doings in humor, with the nefarious no-goodniks come off as frustrated and pouting or buffoon-like, but never SCARY for the younger kiddies. However, there were many instances of too-advanced vocabulary and wordy speeches and the cardinal sin or telling instead of showing which also can make children confused and tune out. This is even more problematic with the lack of visual aspects that would clarify, reinforce, and distract.
USES TIME WELL:——-This could use some trimming. Some scenes feel redundant as the evil ones plot their kidnapping scheme, but the plot of the play doesn’t thicken much. It’s a long show at a 90-minute length with no intermission and feels longer without curtains or full blackouts to break up scenes.
COMMUNICATION SKILLS:——- The cast is uneven with Jennifer Byrne as the standout and best at making a plus out of the casting choice of the players going back and forth between an evil character and hero or heroine. And a royal round of applause for Josh Greenblatt’s work as various princes and taking the oddly written role of Rumpelstiltskin (with a belabored joke about wanting to be called by another name that didn’t land) and spinning it all into something closer to gold.
ATTENTION SPAN:——- . I looked around the audience and kids’ eyes (and, I’d say) minds were wandering sometimes, especially in the later portions and parts with little movement. Songs livened things up for sure.
FORMS APPROPRIATE RELATIONSHIPS:——-Some good bonding moments, but except for Mr. Greenblatt’s work, the heroes and heroines of the classic fairy tales are nowhere near as well defined as any nemesis involved.
WORKS UP TO POTENTIAL:——-Generally good, but with the rich world of fairy tales so often mined for so many, many, many shows in all genres and media, the bar has been set high since Grimm and Sondheim/Lapine and Shelley Duvall and Disney and when one goes to this well, it can feel dangerously dry. But with the dry wit shown here, there’s some refreshing repartee and splendid ideas. The brief bit with Santa’s elves could be expanded. (Again, it made the smallish cast work even harder, and take on even more characters, but it was a neat change of pace.)
OTHER COMMENTS:——- What did they say? Too often, it was difficult to hear all the words in speech and song, especially when actors rushed or the musical accompaniment became too loud. Caleb Hoyer, a musical director whose savvy Broadway-focused piano playing I have greatly admired in the If It Only Even Runs a Minute series about flop musical theatre shows, and musical supervisor McKay Crockett —and their audience—were victimized by a too-complicated, cranked-up accompaniment set-up and placement in a very wide space. Let’s hope these folks get a bigger budget and can go full out, tweak, and polish. The show seemed like it kept coming to an appropriate end, and then another potential end, and then one more, but kept going, perhaps wanting to make one more point. Certainly, the marvelous song about being kinder and capturing the Christmas spirit, which was so well and richly sung by Dan Corica as Santa, is a glorious highlight penultimate moment. The ho-ho-ho of Claus was followed by a short pause and then the yo-ho-ho of the pirate musical reviewed above on the day I went. Seeing them back to back emphasized the difference between this more ambitious and sophisticated musical and a more kid-targeted, simpler and less creative production/property. While the kids “got” the swashbucklers story more easily, despite being younger kids, those at the fairy tale show didn’t always seem to be following theirs. But, when things clicked, this Christmas in August really rang the jingle bell.
NAME:——- WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON
PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS:——- What a well-oiled machine is this ensemble company telling the story of a little girl seeking to change the fortune of her family by taking a long, arduous, and potentially dangerous journey.
HOMEWORK PREPARATION:——- This dance-based performance really has done a lovely, lovely and well-thought-out job bringing to life a published book written and illustrated by Grace Lin.
WRITING SKILLS:——- A “story-theatre” style presentation that combines narration, dialogue, and soundscape, addressing the audience directly and economically conveying the story and its admirable messages about generosity and gratitude and faith is admirable and works beautifully.
USES TIME WELL:——- Bite-size pieces of storytelling, action, and musical phrases, with scenes and characters indicated by creatively staged movement and costume pieces, like a dragon’s head, all were part of the textbook example of effective and uncluttered use of valued stage time.
COMMUNICATION SKILLS:——- Crisply and clearly, using elegant dance movement, pantomime, and simple props like ropes and cloths helped tell the story. So did the actors’ direct eye contact with the audience and each other. Daniel Denver’s attentive musical performance using multiple instruments providing atmospheric acoustic Asian sounds as accompaniment to movement, punctuation, emphasis, and intriguing sound for its own enjoyable sake, all added immensely and made a class act even more elegant and winsome.
ATTENTION SPAN:——-The large audience was packed with many children of all ages as well as adults in this kind of show that can appeal to a broad spectrum. I was impressed as I kept gazing around me to see so many consistently transfixed gazes and attentive people.
FORMS APPROPRIATE RELATIONSHIPS:——- Relationship basics among characters (mother and father and child, several performers working together to create the large body of a dragon from head to rope-swung tail, the actors connecting to this classic-feeling folk tale and to the age-spanning crowd …it was all a pleasure to behold and be part of.
WORKS UP TO POTENTIAL:——- Indeed!
OTHER COMMENTS:——-Of the seven members of the cast, with several male roles to play, only one male cast member was hired. But this was not the only reason talented Mel Gonzales stood out. His gentle spirit and serene manner in multiple roles may be impressively surprising when one sees that his initial interest/ experience in performance came from stand-up comedy. It might feel more balanced to have another male in the group, but this multi-ethnic cast playing both humans and animals of both genders or gender-irrelevant beings. While the five adult women were all up to the jobs, too, the bouquets and major applause go to the young girl playing the central adventurer. Aoi Furutate is a radiant and superby focused performer with an open, glowing face and eyes. She displays not a speck of kid actor slickness or coyness. Thoroughly professional, her guilelessness and grace anchor the show s she —almost always in the spotlight and tasked with a wide variety of things to do as a character and actress, moving with seeming ease and naturalness—she is quite the magnetic marvel here.
Kate August’s lighting design was as poetic and glorious as the rest and director-choreographer-producers Colleen Britt and Linda van Kesteren–who also adapted the story with Debra Hess– are to be congratulated. And profusely thanked. “A” grades all around!