While interviewing visiting New York actors, I’ve been told many times that they began in community children’s theater. The latest was Cedar Rapids native Elizabeth Stanley, now starring in “Bridges of Madison County.” She claimed she “owed a lot” to little companies in eastern Iowa.
Around Des Moines, young Stanley would’ve had greater resources. The Playhouse has its Children’s Theater, as does Altoona, between them mounting several productions a year. Iowa Shakespeare Experience and the suburban companies run educational programs, and during the holidays, just about every show in town features children.
Des Moines Young Artists Theater works in a relatively gray area. Productions include material that, were they movies, would rate an NC-17. “Rent,” for instance, concerned AIDS and addiction; it featured older teens and attracted adult audiences. On the other hand, its latest is “Disney’s High School Musical, Jr.”
The “Jr.” matters. This version is shorter and simpler than the smash TV movie, a career springboard for Zac Efron and others. Taunts between both boys and girls are kept clean, and songs don’t demand any big-lunged money notes. Dances tend to be inclusive, allowing lots of kiddie energy onstage — and also concealing, under the general good cheer, the inevitable flubs.
The show’s ads claim the cast ranges “from 8 to 18,” but most appear to be on the younger end. Altogether, children came from 30 area schools, and as the show opened, when producer Bob Fillipone and a couple of the “cheerleaders” welcomed the crowd, the feeling was definitely one of a party. Naturally, most of the crowd were either parents, siblings or BFFs. Still, I spotted a handful of what you might call “unaccompanied adults.”
So, how was it? Does the show offer anything besides extracurricular credit and a big hug from Mom?
Certainly the technical end worked. Halen Becker created a classic set, a gym floor front and a riser to the back, all in black, red and white of industrial strength. On the lights, Alex Bainter never lagged behind the onstage swirl. And down in that swirl, none of the actors embarrassed themselves.
A few times, in song or in dialog, a voice failed to carry. In one case, the garbled pronunciation may have been a joke, but if so, it didn’t work. On the other hand, the plummy pretensions of the drama teacher, Tatum Lowell, always came across. Heartthrob lead, Sam Lee, held up his end in the ballads, and his counterpart, Morgan Alaimo, worked up a fine shy puppy love. Another of the good girls, Kaitlyn Forney, kept finding the right facial expression.
But in a sweetheart story, the fun parts are always the villains, and Rachel Forney and Marco Masteller milked the roles. They brought off terrific smirking, plus dance moves that announced: Top that!
Overheard in the Lobby: On Dec. 4, two suburban theaters begin their holiday shows: “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” in Winterset and “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” in Newton. Both feature children. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.