Tricky thing, children's theater. It must capture the attention of little 'uns whose attention spans are damaged by hours of Gameboys and Power Puff Girls and at the same time entertain grown-ups reluctant to turn off their cell phones for the sake of a cultural outing with the kiddos. African Tales of Earth and Sky at Dallas Children's Theater, a reprise of last summer's production, manages to succeed on all levels, delivering a clever, colorful, witty play about a legendary trickster forced to explain some of nature's minor mysteries.
Like, why do mosquitoes buzz? Why do lions roar? What is thunder and lightning? Like 5-year-olds asking incessant why-why-whys about everything they see, the four young villagers in the play's mythical West African setting taunt the elusive Mmoatia, a larcenous, bigger-than-life fairy, with questions about the world around them. She refuses to answer, occupied as she is with stealing their food and ransacking their huts, until she is tricked herself and forced to spin yarns in return for her freedom.
Linda Daugherty's script, based on traditional African folk and fairy tales, tells its three fables through inventive, poetic language and simple songs. Original music by percussionist Jamal Mohamed punctuates the action at key moments, sending the high-voltage actors into raucous dance routines (choreographed by Lela Bell) that feel spontaneous and show off the cast's impressive physicality.
In less than 90 minutes, the five cast members slip in and out of a dozen roles, aided in their transformations by multiple changes of earth-hued costumes (by Donna Bailey) that only slightly suggest a lion's tail or a monkey's ears without going all Disney in the details.
The focus of the play is Mmoatia, the trick-playing "Fairy-Men-Never-See," although in her billowy fuchsia muumuu and a hat the size of a footstool, the audience has no problem spotting her. Liz Mikel cackles, crows and kicks up her heels in the showy role, which she plays with an impish twinkle and a firm command of the space around her. At one point she has the task of portraying a giant anthill, and she's hilarious at it, despite being encased in a small mountain of fabric with only her moonface mug sticking out.
Wiry Rhianna Mack twitches and quivers as the buzzy mosquito and the conniving Wife of Rat. As angry Lightning, she bounces as though her limbs are spring-loaded.
Dane Hereford is a spectacular dancer, leaping and strutting as the lion and other creatures. Samatria Ewunes is lion's wife, with a voice like melted butter.
Walter Marvin Demetrius Hardts plays all sorts of animals and other entities in the play, but he's at his best as Nana Nyame, the night spirit, decked out in a sparkly flowing robe and blue-feathered headdress. This is one of those characters perhaps only the parents will dig on a certain level. Vocally he's somewhere between Sammy Davis Jr. on a Rat Pack special and Antonio "Huggy Bear" Fargas, the campy over-actor on Starsky & Hutch.
If that's intentional, then director Robyn Flatt gets extra snaps for planting a few good jokes just for the big folks.
Also enjoyable on many levels is the Pocket Sandwich Theatre's new one, Sweeney Todd: Fiend of Fleet Street. Nobody sings any Sondheim in it, and that's reason enough to throw some friendly adjectives at this lively production, not to mention several baskets of popcorn. The tossing of said snack food is all part of the act at this casual venue, where the audience takes part by pelting onstage villains, and occasionally the heroes, with handfuls of the fluffy stuff. They're also encouraged to holler "Hooray!" at the good guys and to hiss and boo loudly at the baddies, a surprisingly cathartic way of goosing the sometimes sloggy acting onstage.
Actually, throwing food at demon barber Todd and his henchwoman, the pie-maker Mrs. Lovett, seems entirely appropriate, considering what British legend says the pair used to bake into the old lady's pastries. (Beware the finger sandwiches and avoid the headcheese.)
These two no-goodniks, revived in Stephen Sondheim's Tony-winning (and unrelentingly shrill) musical two decades back, have been the subject of spectacularly lurid stories and plays for more than 200 years. Todd, who may or may not have been based on a real barber-surgeon, first appeared in English "penny dreadfuls" in the 18th and 19th centuries. He was depicted as a demented Fleet Street tonsorialist who gave wealthy patrons sloppy tonsillectomies with his straight razor and, after emptying their pockets, dropped them into the cellar via a trapdoor under his barber chair. Todd's gal-pal Mrs. Lovett would grind up the remains and bake the victims' innards into pies, which became popular among the neighborhood hoi polloi.
"Oh, those delicious pies!" reads one of the Todd narratives published in 1870, "the fat and the lean so artistically mixed up."
OK, artistically mixed up also describes the efforts of the actors at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, though it would be cruel to be too hard on them. The atmosphere here is just right for a low-budget, amateurish send-up of Grand Guignol (and they do it without the gore). So what if the costumes are a bit slapdash, the set and lighting a little balky? And who really notices if the cockney accents range from passable to terrible to completely unintelligible? Julia Roberts got away with it in Mary Reilly; why shouldn't these kids?
None of it is to be taken too seriously, and whatever doesn't work in Fiend of Fleet Street is quickly forgotten or overtaken by the many things that do work just fine (like the rinky-tink piano-playing by Elliot Figg).
The evening starts with a singalong of music-hall ditties and sea chanteys. Then narrator Donald McDonald (who also plays two devilish roles) introduces the story of the murderous London barber, who by the end of the night gets his much-deserved comeuppance after murdering, among others, a goodhearted sea captain (Mark Polston) for a pricey string of pearls.
Peter Ray leads the cast as Sweeney Todd, playing him with a creepy likability and a good sense of when to ad-lib off Joe Dickinson's muddy script. Kortney Porter is a wickedly funny Mrs. Lovett, offering a few bars of "Someday My Prince Will Come" as she sweeps out her shop. John Wiltshire is a treat as the scrofulous Mr. Lupin, an aged suitor who pops up in a pirate hat one minute and spouts a Pepe LePew accent the next.
It is lots of fun to be in a theater where nobody ever "Shhhh's" anybody else. Talking to the actors not only is allowed, it's encouraged by the actors themselves, who entreat the onlookers to shout warnings when the bad guys are coming or to verbally offer sympathy when something goes awry. (One dreams of seeing Mamet done this way.)
Audience interjections provided most of the best laughs during a recent performance. "Yum! What are these delicious pies made of?" one character asked Mrs. Lovett. "Soylent green is people!" yelled someone from the third row.
Not exactly Rocky Horror, but not bad.
By the end of the evening (just a wee bit long, with its two lengthy intermissions), actor and audience decorum give way to barely controlled chaos. A blizzard of popcorn blankets the stage, and rowdier patrons start intra-audience kernel skirmishes that threaten to escalate into a full-scale food fight. The performers, bless 'em, just play along. "I leave for India," said the young swain toward the end of the play, "where seas of...popcorn will wash over me." That's all the front row needed. They showered him with it like confetti.
Act 3 of Fiend of Fleet Street somehow pulls itself and all the loose ends of the plot together, sending the villains, like evil fairy-tale characters, into the underworld by way of the bakery ovens. This elicits choruses of approval from the by-now corn-encrusted crowd. And why shouldn't it? After all, nothin' says lovin' like Mrs. Lovett in an oven.