Sunday, June 14, 2009

Musicals for the Prescool Set?

I have always loved theater. In high school and college, I dabbled in acting, made costumes, ran shows backstage. Whenever I travel to a city, I make a point to see a production of something. The summer I was in London for three weeks, I saw four plays.

I've also done my best to get my children interested in theater. I take them to local productions, university theater department plays, puppet-based theatricals, basically any place that I think the show itself is appropriate for small ones. It never ceases to amaze me, although we've been to a fair amount of theater, how well they can pay attention and maintain a respectful silence.

But for me it's always a gamble: will my three- and five-year-olds behave themselves in a "grown-up" venue?

So, I was quick to jump at the offer of promotional tickets to the traveling production of Thomas and Friends Live Onstage, which is perhaps the only BIG show I know that is explicitly aimed at the preschool set. (Even Disney on Ice is, I think, aimed at children in the 4-7 age range.) And then, today, off we went.

Here's what my son (age 5) had to say about the show: "It was good; I liked it." When pressed to clarify what he liked about it, he replied with a smile, "Everything." My daughter clapped along, made Thomas toot whistle sounds, bobbed her head to the music, laughed a lot. In short, both of them were thoroughly entertained.

My husband and I, on the other hand? Not quite so much. Sure, it was really fun to watch the children having such a good time, but the plot of the show itself was hardly scintillating (a circus is coming to town, and Thomas keeps messing things up by trying to be helpful). And the entire experience was LOUD. L-O-U-D, *loud* loud LOUD.

Part of the noise was due to the incessant chatter of the three-year-old audience. "Where's Harold? Where's Harold? Harold? Harold! Haaaarrrrrooolllllddddd!" chanted a little one in the row in front of us. It was pretty cute in the singular. But multiply it by the hundreds of people in the audience, and it made sense why the cast had to have the volume turned up so exceedingly loud on their microphones. Between the chattering audience, the shout-singing cast, and the numbing plot, I was glad when the two hours were over.

To be fair, I find the television episodes of Thomas a little odd and not that compelling either. And I realize that what is compelling to a parent is often precisely the opposite of what will be enrapturing to a pre-schooler. But I also think that the best productions aimed at children, particularly very young ones, contain elements intended for adult appreciation -- excellent skating, if that's your thing, or fancy footwork in the choreography, or an intriguing plot, or witty dialogue.

This show had, I must say, fantastic trains. Apart from the excellent fact that their faces were mobile, the engines chugging across the stage look exactly like the tiny, shiny plastic ones in the battery-operated Thomas line. But these engines onstage were big enough for full-grown humans to drive as conductors. That was pretty amazing.

In short, my recommendation would be to take the little ones to this show if you personally enjoy the animated episodes. It really is just like an episode come to life. If you don't love Thomas on tv yourself, but your little ones do, then take them for the joy of watching the joy on their faces. That is certainly not valueless. Just don't go expecting a show pitched at adults. Because, really, your three-year-old has different taste than you do.

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