Onstage: Joe Pulitzer, Snow White, and other kids’ stuff

From 'Newsies' to 'Snow White' to 'Chrysalis,' children's theater takes on a dizzying variety in Portland

Children’s theater, like children’s lit (and, come to think of it, like kids themselves), comes in a dizzying variety. Musicals, for instance: the old razzle-dazzle, which can sweep kids up in a spectacle of neverland. The Broadway in Portland series opens the stage version of Disney’s Newsies Tuesday night for a six-day run at Keller Auditorium, and although it’s not specifically a children’s show, it’s here because kids have made it a hit.

Original company, North American Tour of Disney’s "Newsies." ©Disney. Photo by Deen van Meer

Original company, North American Tour of Disney’s “Newsies.” ©Disney. Photo by Deen van Meer

The timing for Newsies could scarcely be better. Today this year’s Pulitzer prizes were announced (the hip-hop historical musical Hamilton won for theater), and Newsies is about an 1899 newsboys’ strike for better pay against the penny-pinching press titans Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Those were the days! Thanks for the prize, Joe. Now, about that paycheck.

The movie was a flop when it came out in 1992 despite some energetic scene work from choreographer/director Kenny Ortega and a few brashly appealing songs by Alan Menken and J.A.C. Redford. But it gained a cult following among young DVD devotees, which led to the money-making Broadway stage adaptation, which led to this tour. Kid power, pure and simple – plus some exuberant song and dance.

Kids’ theater also comes in fresh adaptations of familiar tales, such as the new musical version of Snow White that opens Saturday at Northwest Children’s Theater. Snow White gets a little spunky in this anime-inspired version (Prince Charming? Who’s he?) and seems quite capable of handling the situation herself. Milo Mowery and Rodolfo Ortega, who also created NWCT’s popular Peter Pan, El Zorrito, and steampunk Pinocchio, are teaming up again on the adaptation, which is promising.

Sisters, sisters: Snow White (Sophie Mackay) and Rose Red (Kaylee Bair). Photo ©2016 David Kinder

Sisters, sisters: Snow White (Sophie Mackay) and Rose Red (Kaylee Bair). Photo ©2016 David Kinder

Meanwhile, Oregon Children’s Theatre’s charming and unexpectedly moving adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s novel The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, with its hints of magical realism, continues in the Winningstad Theatre.

And in the little black box space at OCT’s home on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, the company’s innovative Young Professionals Company has just finished its first of two weekends performing the premiere of Chrysalis, a new play, developed with the cast, by Matthew B. Zrebski. The Young Professionals Company is something a lot of children’s theater companies don’t have – an ongoing program aimed specifically at teens, with teen-aged performers drawn from across the metro area and small-scale productions that are edgier and often more topical than what happens on the main stage. A year ago, for instance, it performed Columbinus, about the infamous 1999 mass shooting in a Colorado high school.

Chrysalis, which I caught on Saturday night, is equally tense and driving but also less involving, maybe because it doesn’t have the reality of something like the Columbine shootings at its base. With a cast of eight, it tells the tale of the fallout from the online posting of a girl’s diary entry about being raped as a child. The posting is an act of betrayal on several counts, and four people – the boy who posted, the girl’s older sister and ex-boyfriend, the girl herself – have to grow through it or be trapped. The chrysalis metaphor, given physical shape by four wraithlike characters, seems overplayed: the drama might work better with a more realistic approach and some more natural rises and falls in the action rather than the high-speed train ride it gets.

But the young actors – Max Bernsohn, Charlotte Karlsen, Tirza Meuljic, Isaac Sten, Morgan Demetre, Connor Muhl, Emma Stewart, Martin Tebo – maintain impressive focus, and the play, which Zrebski wrote after extensive conversations with the cast, deals with real issues of intense importance to people in the nether zone between childhood and adulthood – a chrysalis situation of its own. One of the values of a company like this is the exploration it allows its members to make. And Zrebski, who’s created a lot of fine youth theater in town (he also directed Theatre Vertigo’s superb premiere of Rob Handel’s very adult I Want To Destroy You earlier this year) has made this an intriguing collaborative adventure. He explains his approach in the show’s program notes:

“One of the great drives of my theater career has been the desire to develop new plays for teen actors and audiences – plays that don’t talk down, or patronize, or over-simplify, or moralize, but that actually dive head first into the issues with which teenagers are grappling.

“With that philosophy in mind, I entered into a focus group with members of the Young Professionals Company at OCT. Their passionate assertions were staggering … concerns about gender equality, sexual abuse, economics, academic pressures, sexual orientation, religion, politics, terrorism, media, and countless other topics permeated the room. But one particular notion was dominant from these young adults: ‘It seems sometimes that we may be the last generation to be able to fix everything. That’s a lot of pressure.’ To which I thought, ‘What if they are?'”

At which point, we’re suddenly not in Kansas any more. Did I mention that children’s theater comes in a dizzying variety?


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