Friday night’s opening night performance of Zach Theatre’s “The Three Little Pigs” musical continued to prove why the theater’s education department lead by Nat Miller gets children’s theater right.
It’s smart. It’s funny. It doesn’t talk down to kids. It twists the classic fairy tale just enough to keep Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa interested, while not losing the fairy tale’s message. The production, produced by Carla Tyson and directed by Abe Reybold, will be on Zach’s Kleberg stage through April 25 and will be seen by about 20,000 kids including many school groups.
Schools pay a reduced rate depending on the school’s economic makeup; public shows are $15 for children and $20 for adults. Even for public shows, Zach doesn’t turn anyone away because of an inability to pay as long as there are seats available.
For Miller, the goal of children’s theater is about exposing young people to the arts, which creates a future generation of artists. “It inspires them to want to dream and use their imaginations, ” he told us in 2013.
The program continues to grow as “The Three Little Pigs” demonstrates. The three pigs, Cha (Gustavo Gomez), Siu (Amanda Serra) and Bao (Michael Marchese) have become famous, with a new book out about their adventures taking down the wolf. Their mother (Jacqui Cross) is the ultimate stage mother, setting up appearances, getting the book-signing table just right.
She takes us back to a time a year earlier, when her three little piglets were crowding the sty and needed to set out on their own. They were afraid at first; after all, the Big Bad Wolf killed their father. Yet, she assures them that he hasn’t been seen recently and it’s time for them to create their own stys.
Of course, we as an audience, soon learn that the Big Bad Wolf is alive and he can’t wait to taste some fresh ham. Wolf (played with a side of schmaltz by Russel Taylor) is in full young Elvis gear — black leather jacket, black pants and boots, pompadour hair — and he has all the Elvis swagger and sound. At first, he’s scary and the production plays up the fear during his introduction.
The cast uses different parts of the theater to enter and exit including parts of the audience. So, when he appeared in the audience shortly after his first song, he did frighten one child in the audience. To Taylor’s credit, he turned it around by being afraid of that child, sending the rest of the audience into giggles and letting the other kids know that there was nothing to be afraid of. (For those of you with younger children, you might want to prepare them for the villain ahead of time.)
The language of “The Three Little Pigs” feels very fresh. The wolf describing his hunger is a walking thesaurus of $1 words that most kids wouldn’t know, but it’s easy to get the context. There are, of course, plenty of opportunities to use pig references and humor. It’s “hogs and kisses” instead of hugs and kisses, for example. The audiences is in on the joke and your kids will love seeing how many different ways the words “pig,” “hog,” “bacon” and “ham” get used.
Yet, for traditionalists, this “Three Little Pigs” manages to work in the classic language: “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” “Not by the hair of my chinny, chin, chin.” “Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and blow your house in” are all there.
You will leave the theater singing the wolf’s song “I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff.”
The set design for “The Three Little Pigs” is smart, with three separate house frames that are movable and combine depending on the scene. Each pig adds a screen to show the different materials they make their house with. The houses move around and get put back together for the final house and get turned around for the Big Bad Wolf’s lair.
The five-person cast is strong and versatile, playing other roles to fill out the story when needed. Jacqui Cross stands out as the mother for her powerful vocals, but dishes out the humor as various tradesmen who sell the pigs their building materials. Taylor transforms from a nerdy fan into the rebel-with-a-cause wolf and knows when to ham it up but not go too far. The pigs work well together, but are also capable of holding the stage on their own.
While Zach’s adult theater has had missteps in the way it uses diversity, its education department gets it right. There’s no real reason that the pig’s mother is black and the pigs are Caucasian and Hispanic other than those were the best actors for those roles. Reybold doesn’t play into any stereotypes and kids will not think anything of it.
That’s just smart.
‘Three Little Pigs‘ For ages 3 and up. $20 adults, $15 children. 2 p.m. Saturdays through April 25. 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sundays through March 29. Zach Theatre’s Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside Drive. zachtheatre.org.