When the phrase “family entertainment” comes up, it can make adults cringe. But in Philadelphia, we have a wealth of children's theater that is actually good. Resourceful, talented theaters have found innovative ways to tell stories – in particular during November and through December’s holiday season – heightening all elements of childlike wonder without eschewing something their moms and dads can chew on.
At the Walnut Street Theatre, productions such as the Frank L. Baum classic The Wizard of Oz (running to Jan. 8) and poet Dylan Thomas' dear A Child’s Christmas in Wales (running to Dec. 23) are worth a visit. The latter features direction from Aaron Cromie, Philadelphia's David-Lynch; complex new songs by Charlotte Moore; and a starring role for Scott Greer, the Philly actor last seen as Frank Rizzo for Theatre Exile.
"As we've been making the show, we've discovered that the descriptive language of smells, flavors, memories of playing in the snow, the eccentric relatives, coupled with the live music, should really appeal to both young and old, very possibly making them think of their own past holiday experiences," says Cromie. "That and the very real smell of cider fills our theater, and the performers enjoy a cup as they tell the many stories and sing the various songs."
TV isn't always terrible for a young brain, especially when it hits the stage: The Octonauts may be a Disney Jr. network confection, but as Walt’s studio grows up, so does its cartoons -- as with the live stage show The Octonauts and the Deep Sea Volcano Adventure, opening Friday at Glenside’s Keswick Theatre. Next Friday and Nov. 26, Odd Squad: Live, PBS' tween take on Men in Black-meets-The X files, rages at the Merriam Theater as teen government agents apply science and math to supernatural occurrences.
Odd Squad’s Father Time, played by University of the Arts grad Bryan Black, says the key to keeping his math-based adventure sharp for even sharper kids is its brand of comic dispensation. “It’s a very modern sense of comedy -- a Parks and Recreation/The Office/Phineas and Ferb mashup – where the comedy stems from characters you care about being thrust into often ridonculous situations and circumstances, and then the process of them trying to find their way back to normalcy,” he says. “Even the dramedy of Odd Squad comes from the real dramatic struggle of these fun characters trying to get out of these wacky situations they find themselves in.”
Then there is Old City’s Arden Theatre, which is bringing back A Year with Frog and Toad (opening Wednesday), featuring Barrymore Award winners Jeff Coon (Frog) and Ben Dibble (Toad), who are gifted singers and comics, and they nail their respective amphibian personas.
“One might think that children are not in the continuity of life and that they want to hear some fake tone, or that they need to gaze at primary colors and that they are somehow cut off from the rest of humanity, which they aren’t,” says Whit MacLaughlin, the man at the helm of Frog and Toad. “Often, when watching a show, I just ask myself, ‘Do I want to be in that world?' If I do, then the next question is, 'Do my children also want to be in that world?' If it satisfies both, then we are in good shape.”
With that, MacLaughlin – the man behind Philly’s avant-garde New Paradise Laboratories theater productions – goes about the business of captivating one and all and exploring human situations that have investment in their emotional truth. He crafts stories that show off the similarities between young and old without playing down to either – something he has done for local children’s theater stories such as James & the Giant Peach, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, a very Cocteau-like Beauty and the Beast, and others. One of the deepest lessons to be learned from Frog and Toad is what MacLaughlin says is the “I need a friend” theory -- a simple reality he uses as a through line for his production. “We realize that we need friends," MacLaughlin says. "That’s not something that’s a kid thing vs. an adult thing.”
The Wizard of Oz, through Jan. 8, Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., $20-$95.