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Children's theater isn't given a lot of respect here in South Florida. First-class productions often receive very little public attention, and few shows are reviewed, much less considered for awards. Some sloppy performances by badly directed, inexperienced actors may have given the genre a bad reputation, but the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables is setting a new standard, devoting an entire division to the production of young people's musicals.
This past week, under the talented direction of Earl Maulding, the playhouse kicked off its tenth annual National Children's Theatre Festival. The three-day extravaganza showcased plays, dance recitals, and a rousing rendition of The Pirates of Penzance, whose cast was composed solely of youths.
The highlight of the event is a national competition of original musicals with the winning entry awarded a professional production on the playhouse's main stage. Snagging the spot this year was Isabelle and the Pretty-Ugly Spell, a winsome fairy tale with deep social and political undertones.
Isabelle -- referred to as Izzy -- is a bumbling fairy godmother charged with the protection of a beautiful baby princess. Fearing the infant's physical grace will tarnish her sensibilities, Izzy casts a spell rendering the young girl unattractive. Only a prince's kiss prior to her sixteenth birthday can reverse the magic. Izzy's interference, albeit well-meaning, creates numerous problems that become magnified by a domineering grand fairy godmother, a slew of scornful courtiers, and a conniving mother of two boys, each of whom has plans for the princess. As all fairy tales must, this one ends happily ever after, thanks to a nearsighted inventor by the name of Clyde, who proves himself a prince of a guy.
While the musical is lighthearted, the book from which it was adapted -- written by Joan Ross Sorkin and Steven Fisher -- exposes the pressure placed on teenagers to conform to physical ideals. However, unlike many young girls desperate to reach society's unattainable standards, the princess never doubts her true beauty, a flaw in the story line. Sorkin and Fisher's book would be more convincing if the emotional trauma associated with this social ill were more convincingly portrayed. Nevertheless this is a well-crafted production.
Fisher, acting as composer and lyricist, serves up a tasty array of Broadway-style ballads (notably "Raising Daughters" and the love duet "I Don't Need") in addition to some livelier numbers. The talented cast of seven features Sarah Davida in the title role and a show-stopping performance from David Perez-Ribada. Drawing on his roles as the original Latin lover in Anna in the Tropics and the hilarious boob in Beauty and the Beast, Perez-Ribada creates a clumsy but memorably charming Clyde.
This is a pocket musical; some numbers lacked weight and needed a chorus. But Maulding's well-paced staging made good use of the playhouse's technical resources -- the whizzing curtains, scrims, and turntable. Patrick Tennant's lighting favored pastels, namely aqua and lavender; and Ananda Keator's costume design added to the overall excellence, especially the sight of Michael Vines and Marc Kircher as mop-wigged fairy godmothers.
The playhouse's commitment to developing young audiences is shared by only a few other troupes, such as the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre, which will open its spring show, The Phantom Tollbooth, May 6 for three performances. Most area theaters continue to concentrate on an older demographic in spite of declining attendance and support. My tip of the week: Learn from the multinational corporations. Many are no longer concerned with wealthy consumers, instead targeting younger individuals who have yet to cement their habits and preferences. If the emphasis is not centered on developing young audiences, older ones will soon cease to exist. Get them young and you'll keep them. Have you ever met an avid theatergoer who didn't begin the habit as a child?