Winning Over the Children With Great Theater
Who says kids won’t sit still for an afternoon or evening at the theater?
Well, maybe not entirely still, but “kids”—from adolescents, to pre-teens, to just-out-of-the-stroller-but-some-years-before-kindergarten are getting a couple of great choices at the Kennedy Center this holiday season with an opera and a play geared toward them. “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me,” is a new piece, commissioned by the Washington National Opera. Directed by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me,” will be on stage this weekend at the Terrace Theater. Performances are Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. At the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater, “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play!,” based on the popular “Elephant and Piggie” children’s books by Mo Williams, will have its world premiere. The musical production stars young actors tackling the challenge of being, well, elephant and piggie. Performances run through December 23.
“The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me” (and children’s opera in general) is a specific project and passion for Zambello, who has promised to bring a holiday production for the entire family each holiday season. “Hansel and Gretel” was presented last year.
“The Lion, the Unicorn and Me,” as Zambello noted on opening night, is the first opera composed by a woman—the Tony-Award-nominated Jeanine Tesori—to be presented by the Washington National Opera. Based on the book of the same name by Jeanette Winterson, the story posits the entirely plausible notion that on the eve of the Nativity, Jospeh and Mary were looking for a ride to Bethlehem. A boy angel was in charge of the search committee and all sorts of creatures applied, including a snake slithering down the aisle and a flamingo and a hippo. But it all came down to the lion, the unicorn and me, me being a donkey who was sturdily and patiently perfect for the job. All of which did not prevent the lion—the yeoman of WNO bass Simon Howard—from roaring musically and impressively and the unicorn—who looked a little like a mysterious disco diva, both alluring and fey, as portrayed by Jacqueline Echols—from being dazzling.
All of this, the contest, the journey and the Nativity, was remarkably touching and enjoyable because it reminded me that my inner child was still here. The stage was full of children and young people, including members of the WNO’s Domingo-Cafraitz Young Artists Program and the WNO’s children’s chorus.
The music was perhaps not entirely classically operatic, but it was accessible and varied in voice, tempo and feeling. Tesori is after all a Broadway veteran with “Shrek: The Musical” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” as well as the score for “Caroline, or Change” to her credit.
Imagination, heart and seeing the world through the eyes of children while playing members of the animal kingdom in a musical is also at work in “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play!” at the Family Theatre. Veteran theater pros are at work on this musical version of the popular books by six-time Emmy Award winner Mo Willems. It is recommended for ages four and up, but don’t let that stop you.
Willems is adept at finding themes and stories that children are drawn to. He’s worked on the Cartoon Network and Sesame Street. He also wrote “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical,” also commissioned by the Kennedy Center. The adventures of “Elephant and Piggy” asks such kid-friendly questions as, “Should you share your ice cream cone?” and “How can two friends share a single toy?”
The two leads are in good hands with Evan Casey who plays Elephant Gerald and Lauren Williams who plays Piggie. Both are veterans of children’s theater and performed together in “Snow White, Rose Red (and Fred)” at the Kennedy Center. Williams has been in “The Phantom Tollbooth” and “For the Love of Goldfish.” Casey has performed in “Tales of Custard the Dragon.” Both are regulars on the D.C. theater scene.
Casey, 31, says he, “tends to emulate Rex Harrison” in terms of his singing, while Williams, 30, says she has “a very young voice” for Piggie. “It’s a musical,” Casey says. “But it’s not just about singing. I also think right now, with what the Kennedy Center is doing, with Imagination Stage and Adventure Theater with Michael Bobbitt, children’s or young people’s theater has become a very big thing in the Washington theatre.”
Williams says the two characters are true to size—the elephant is really big, Piggie is small, yet they’re friends. “You tend to make big gestures if you’re playing an elephant,” Casey said, “although my wife saw me in rehearsal and she said I was acting like our dog.”
“Children’s theater is always a challenge, for acting, but you can also let yourself go, be dramatic, emphatic, so that children will understand what you’re doing,” Williams said.
After all, Elephant and Piggie are in a play!