Review: Pollyanna Theatre’s “Sarah the Dinosaur” at the Long Center

When we first see Sarah from Pollyanna Theatre Company’s “Sarah the Dinosaur,” she is meek. The second-grader and her class are visiting a museum and all the other kids pair up and are having a fine time. She is left out.

"Sarah the Dinosaur" is at the Long Center through Sunday.
“Sarah the Dinosaur” is at the Long Center through Sunday.

When we last see Sarah, she has found her voice and learned how to use it appropriately, and has learned a lot of cool things about dinosaurs.

The production at the Long Center is designed for preschoolers and early elementary-school children. It was written by Kathleen Fletcher and Andrew Perry, and five actors play all the characters from students and teachers to family members and dinosaurs.

In this production, you get to see a little bit of how theater is made as you watch a stagehand or the actors move the sets to turn a museum into a home, school yard or classroom. You also watch a table turn into a bed. It’s a great entry into theater for children who have never seen a live production.

“Sarah the Dinosaur” is also insight into a young girl’s mind. As Sarah played by Uyen-Anh Dang reads a dinosaurs book, dinosaurs appear on the stage and act how she might imagine. They do the hula, they fly like an airplane, they go to the grocery store for a steak. It reminds kids that imagination and creativity are good.

Some of the performances are over-the-top, especially from the dinosaurs, which made the audience giggle. However, there a disconnect between how the children act and the idea that they are second-graders. Some of their behavior makes them feel more like preschoolers, yet they are reading and writing.

The mother is a 1950s housewife stereotype with a robe and hair rollers. All she’s missing is the dangling cigarette. The teacher is like no elementary school teacher I know. She’s unobservant and unprofessional. She definitely doesn’t have control of this classroom. She has a good heart, though.

The obnoxious kids and the dumbed-down adults remind of the shows on the Disney Channel that present an idea that parents are always stupid and children can get attention for being  obnoxious.

“Sarah” definitely sends a message that is worth seeing: Growing up is not just about getting bigger; it’s about growing on the inside by admitting when you are wrong and learning how to find your voice.

Summer can be a hard time to find good theater for kids to see. This summer, we’ve been lucky: “Inside Out” is in movie theaters and “Sarah the Dinosaur” is on stage. Think of them as companion pieces to the lesson of growing up and dealing with emotions.

Pollyanna Theatre Co.presents “Sarah the Dinosaur.”

When: 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 4 p.m. Saturday.

Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive.

Tickets: $11-$15.50.

Information: thelongcenter.org.

Read about past Pollyanna Theatre productions here, here and here.

Paramount announces its winter/fall schedule

The Paramount and Stateside theaters announced their fall-winter season. Season subscriptions are on sale at austintheater.org.

Here are some highlights:

Christopher Cross with hits “Sailing” and “Ride like the Wind” performs Sept. 18.

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt present an acoustical evening on Oct. 26.

Terri Hendrix teams up with Lloyd Maines on Dec. 4.

Dr. Deepak Chopra gestures during a session.
Dr. Deepak Chopra gestures during a session.

Deepak Chopra gives his insights in “The Future of Wellbeing” Jan. 24.

Olivia Dukakis stars in the one-woman show “Rose,” Jan. 7.

The Moth live radio show returns with new stories and storytellers Dec. 9.

For fun, watch “Potted Potter,” all seven Harry Potter books condensed into a parody Nov. 10-15. Improvised Shakespeare turns Shakespeare on its head in a live improvised show Jan. 28-30.

Ira Glass of “This American Life” teams with Monica Barnes and Anna Bass for “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host,” Dec. 5.

You can also expect Ray Wylie Hubbard to bring back his birthday bash Nov. 14. and Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison to bring their Holiday Shindig Dec. 19.

The Beekman Boys from the Cooking Channel come to Eat Drink Local Week on Nov. 29.

Laverne Cox from “Orange is the New Black” talks Jan. 22.

Here’s the complete schedule:

Lyle Lovett brings his Large Band to Paramount Theatre Oct. 26. Deborah Cannon American-Statesman
Lyle Lovett brings his Large Band to Paramount Theatre Oct. 26. Deborah Cannon American-Statesman

Sept. 17: Steve Earle and The Dukes at the Paramount Theatre

Sept.18: Christopher Cross at the Paramount Theatre

Oct. 16: Jesse Cook at the Paramount Theatre

Oct. 18: Dr. Ralph Stanley with Family and Friends at the Paramount Theatre

Oct. 22: John Fullbright at the Paramount Theatre

Oct. 26: An Acoustic Evening with Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at the Paramount Theatre

Nov. 8: Discovery Series: “Room on the Broom” at the Paramount Theatre

Nov. 10-­15: “Potted Potter” at Stateside at the Paramount

Nov. 14: Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Birthday Bash” at the Paramount Theatre

Nov. 19: Tommy Emmanuel at the Paramount Theatre

Nov. 20: Don Williams at the Paramount Theatre

Nov. 29: Eat Drink Local Week: The Beekman Boys at the Paramount Theatre

Dec. 4: Terri Hendrix and Lloyd Maines at Stateside at the Paramount

Dec. 5: “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host”: Ira Glass, Monica Barnes and Anna Bass at the Paramount Theatre

Dec. 9: The Moth at the Paramount Theatre

Dec. 11-­13: Discovery Series: “Peter and the Wolf” (featuring Mother Falcon) at Stateside at the Paramount

Actress Laverne Cox attends Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black" screening.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Actress Laverne Cox attends Netflix’s “Orange Is The New Black” screening. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Dec. 12: Steve Lippia’s “Centennial Sinatra” at the Paramount Theatre

Dec. 19: “Kelly and Bruce’s Holiday Shindig” at the Paramount Theatre

Jan. 7: “Rose” starring Olympia Dukakis at the Paramount Theatre

Jan. 22: Laverne Cox at the Paramount Theatre

Jan. 22-­23: Colin Hay at Stateside at the Paramount

Jan. 24: Deepak Chopra: “The Future of Wellbeing” at the Paramount Theatre

Jan. 28-­30: Improvised Shakespeare Company at Stateside at the Paramount

Jan. 31: Discovery Series: “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play!” at the Paramount Theatre

April 3: Discovery Series: “Peter Rabbit Tales” at the Paramount Theatre

Theater Review: “Ashes, Ashes” at Scottish Rite Theater

Nini (Katy Smaczniak) must recite the town’s history to Stop Watch (Megan Ortiz) and History Book (Kathy Blackbird) in “Ashes, Ashes” at Scottish Rite Theater.
Nini (Katy Smaczniak) must recite the town’s history to Stop Watch (Megan Ortiz) and History Book (Kathy Blackbird) in “Ashes, Ashes” at Scottish Rite Theater.

Out of darkness comes the seed of a beautiful flower. That’s what happens in Scottish Rite Theater’s production of “Ashes, Ashes,” but you have to be be surrounded by dark to get the flower at the end.

The story, written by Even Tulbert, a University of Texas alum with a master’s in fine arts for theater and dance and theater for youth, won Tulbert a Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences playwriting award.

The cautionary tale about what could happen in an over-industrialized world is beautifully written and well-performed, but you should know what you’re getting before attending and determine if your child will handle some scary imagery. The lights go out, the theater is dimly lighted in parts and there are nightmares about. The humor that is sprinkled throughout and the sweet moments between a mother and daughter, help this play from going too dark, but it is dark nonetheless.

Nini (Katy Smaczniak) holds her mother (Laura Freeman) as ash monsters surround her.
Nini (Katy Smaczniak) holds her mother (Laura Freeman) as ash monsters surround her.

In this dystopian world, everything runs on time, and that’s very important because it’s been years since the town has seen the sun through the clouds of thick industrial ash. One woman, who runs the town, is in charge of the on/off button, which creates day and night through artificial light. The whole town works at a factory, including Nini’s father. Her mother, Rosa, is too sick from the ash to be able to work anymore.

Nini (played well by Katy Smaczniak) has frequent nightmares as ash-covered people invade her dreams and she hears people talking hauntingly. The ash-covered people, who appear on stage as part of the scenery from the opening, could be particularly scary for the youngest members of the audience. They come to life and surround Nini as she is sleeping.

Nini goes to school and notices that her classmate, Edward, is missing. The Stop Watch (Megan Ortiz) and the History Book (Kathy Blackbird) erase her memory of his name after he’s “disintegrated.” We’re quite sure what is going on except that now Nini, the only kid at school, will have to recite the town history instead of Edward. The history song is very cheery and doesn’t make mention of ash, which is all over this world. It’s represented in piles and piles of gray strips of fabric that cover the stage and the stairs to the stage.

When Nini’s mother gets very sick and disintegrates, the Stop Watch and the History Book come to the home to erase Nini and her father’s memories of Rosa.

Nini is very upset and looking for answers. She runs away and down into the big coal hole, where she’s seen the Stop Watch and History Book throw names written on pieces of fabric to erase them. Sometimes they are names of people, sometimes they are names of plants or trees.

In the depths of the coal hole, she meets a mysterious woman who is wearing a coat made of all the names that have been lost. She gives Nini a recipe to recovering her mother’s name that includes making water come through stone, separating seed from ash, watering the seed and finding the sun to shine on the seed.

Nini starts her journey to complete these tasks that don’t seem to make any sense. In the end, she is able to return to the surface to regrow the memories in the form of flowers that are in stark contrast to the harsh, industrial world in which she lives.

“Ashes, Ashes” is a cautionary tale about protecting the environment, and kids in the audience understand that. The audience was mainly quite during this hour-long show, and afterwards, I heard parents ask their children if they liked it. It brought up discussions about ash and dust and growing flowers. It isn’t a show that your child is going to stand up and applaud loudly afterward. This is a show that will leave them thinking, enjoying it, but thinking. It’s best for elementary school-aged kids.

Aside from the acting, which was well-done, the sets, the lighting and sound really are part of the action and help you become fully immersed in this world.

There are some very cool features of seeing a show at Scottish Rite Theater. First, your kids are seeing theater in 140-year-old building. How often are kids in Austin surrounded by history like that? Second, they and you can sit on the carpet on the floor or choose your seating. The advantage of the carpet is that theater is all around you as actors enter from behind and from the side. Third, afterwards, you can talk to the actors in the lobby, get them to sign your program and ask them questions.

“Ashes, Ashes,” 11 a.m. Saturdays through May 23; 2 p.m. Sundays through May 17. $12 adults, $8 children 12 and younger. Scottish Rite Theater, 207 W. 18th St. scottishritetheater.org.

Michael Learned, Jennifer Holliday coming to Zach Theatre stage

Michael Learned is coming to Zach Theatre for "Mothers and Sons" this month.
Michael Learned is coming to Zach Theatre for “Mothers and Sons” this month.

Zach Theatre had two big announcements late last week: Michael Learned, who is known as the matriarch of “The Waltons” TV show, will be playing another mother in Texas playwright Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons.” Jennifer Holliday will star in the Duke Ellington musical review “Sophisticated Ladies.” Holliday is best-known for her Tony-winning performance in “Dreamgirls.”

“Mothers and Sons” will be at the Topfer Theatre May 27-June 21. Martin Burke, William May and Nicholas Rodriguez also will star and Dave Steakley will direct. A mother makes a surprise visit to the New York apartment of her late son’s ex-partner. He’s now married to another man and has a young son. She is witness to the changing society around her and what might have been had her son still been alive.

Zach Theatre has done other McNally-written plays including “Ragtime,” “Master Class,” Love! Valour! Compassion!,” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.”

“Mothers and Sons is a beautiful play of this moment in time as our country, and our state, struggles to define what constitutes a family, and who has the right to marry,” said Steakley in a press release. He went on to say, “We are poised at one of those moments in American history, and I’m delighted we are one of the first to produce McNally’s thoughtful, human, compassionate play.”

Jennifer Holliday will be at Zach Theatre in July for "Sophisticated Ladies."
Jennifer Holliday will be at Zach Theatre in July for “Sophisticated Ladies.”

“Sophisticated Ladies” will run July 15-Aug. 23 and be directed by Abe Reybold. Dominique Kelley will do the choreography. It’s the story of Harlem’s Cotton Club and will figure a full orchestra on stage. Hits include “Mood Indigo,” “Take the A Train” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

“I’m thrilled that Jennifer is joining this incredible cast,” said Reybold in a press release. “She has a real affinity and love for Duke Ellington’s music, which I know will come through in her performance and will bring something very special to this production.”

Tickets for either show start at $25 and are at http://www.zachtheatre.org, by phone at 512-476-0541 ext. 1 or at the box office at Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.

Theater review: “Annie” like the fun friend that disappoints in the end

“Annie” is at Bass Concert Hall this week with Issie Swickle as Annie and Sunny as Sandy in “Tomorrow.”
“Annie” is at Bass Concert Hall this week with Issie Swickle as Annie and Sunny as Sandy in “Tomorrow.”

Broadway in Austin’s “Annie” is one of those shows you want to love. It’s got all the memorable songs: “Tomorrow,” “Maybe,” “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” “Little Girls,” “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” “Easy Street,”  “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” and “I Don’t Need Anything But You.” It also has some songs that make you scratch your head because they weren’t memorable and you now understand why they didn’t make it into a version movie: “N.Y.C.,” “You Won’t Be an Orphan for Long,” and the cringe-worthy closing song “”A New Deal for Christmas.”

The problem with this “Annie,” compared with the movie that came out last December, is it’s incredibly dated. When I asked lyricist and director Martin Charnin about that earlier this month, he kept insisting that “Annie” is a timeless story about a girl’s search and hope to find her family. You can read that preview story here.

He’s right; that part is timeless and feels like something with which today’s kids can relate. The problem is the context of the play. The Great Depression, Hoovervilles, the New Deal — all play heavily in the story line of “Annie.” My 11-year-old daughter kept asking me questions: What are they talking about? When is this? Is this before World War II or after? Who is this Herbert Hoover?

Even though my daughter comes from a family that has talked about history her whole life, and she’s heard stories of her great-grandfathers in World War II and a little about the Great Depression, she’s three, possibly four generations removed from this time period. She grew restless every time President Roosevelt appeared or there was talk about any Hoover — Herbert or J. Edgar. Name droppings of Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan went completely over her head. It was one big “Huh?”

It’s not really her fault. Her fifth-grade U.S. History class has only gotten to the writing of the Constitution. Her brother’s eighth-grade U.S. History class is only at the Civil War. They just don’t know 20th century history. After all, they were born in this century.

The parts where “Annie” continues to shine is anytime Annie, played by Issie Swickle, and the other orphans are on the stage. Miss Hannigan, played by Lynn Andrews, steals and rescues this show. She caused full belly laughs throughout our area, which had a huge number of children my daughter’s age and younger. Even though she’s the villain, there are long stretches during which you hope she’ll come back on stage. We also wanted more Sandy, the dog, even though the dog that played him appeared to be bored the short time he was on the stage.

In keeping with the 1930s theme, Annie affected a 1930s New Englander accent every time she sang that didn’t always match her speaking voice. Lose the accent and her personality would shine through more. The other distraction was how much Issie messed with her wig in the final scene as well as the sailor suit and classic Annie dress. The audience could tell Issie felt uncomfortable in these stiff outfits. Issie has been playing Annie since August. By now, her outfits and her wig should fit her well and feel like second nature to her instead of irritating her.

“”Annie” is also long for its target audience. It’s 21/2 hours, and even with an intermission, it’s a recipe for seat squirming. Broadway in Austin should consider starting kid-oriented shows like the upcoming “The Little Mermaid” at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. There would be a lot less children falling asleep in the theater and being carried out by their parents.

One other note: Bass Concert Hall continues to have sound problems. This time was better than “Mamma Mia,” but some of the talking parts were a bit muffled, especially in the beginning of the show with the orphans.

We’d easily return to see “Annie” for the the kids and Miss Hannigan and we’ve been singing the songs all morning long, but it really is time for “Annie” to get an update, one that is better than the 2014 movie.

“Annie”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2300 Robert Dedman Drive

Tickets: $30-$110

Information: texasperformingarts.org

Theater review: A “Three Little Pigs” for you and your piglets

"The Three Little Pigs" at Zach Theatre stars Gustavo Gomez, Amanda Serra, Michael Marchese, and Jacqui Cross. Photo by Kirk Tuck.
“The Three Little Pigs” at Zach Theatre stars Gustavo Gomez, Amanda Serra, Michael Marchese, and Jacqui Cross. Photo by AxelB Photography.

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.

Gustavo Gomez, Amanda Serra, and Michael Marchese play the three little pigs who have become rock stars. Kirk Tuck
Gustavo Gomez, Amanda Serra, and Michael Marchese play the three little pigs who have become rock stars. AxelB Photography

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.

Russel Taylor plays the wolf. Photo by Kirk Tuck
Russel Taylor plays the wolf. Photo by AxelB Photography

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.

 

 

 

 

“Mamma Mia!” fun but loud

Mamma MiaFox Theater

The musical "Mamma Mia!" is coming to Bass Concert Hall for a limited run.
The musical “Mamma Mia!” is coming to Bass Concert Hall for a limited run.

“Mamma Mia!”, the musical based on ABBA music, dances on Bass Concert Hall’s stage this week. It’s part of the Broadway Across America tour.

A young girl, who grew up on a Greek island, is about to get married. She invites three men from her mother’s past who could be her father. Her mother’s gal pals from the past also invade for the weekend. It’s a high energy comedy with many laughs and music that has the audience tapping their feet and sometimes singing along.

It is delightful, bringing together an audience of mostly women of all ages and occasional dates.

But at Tuesday night’s performance, the solo vocals were mostly strong, but drown out by the way-too-loud backing band and the way-way-way too loud Greek choir. At one point, audience members had their hands covering their ears as the band came in way too loud to start the second act.

There were also problems with diction. If you knew the music, you could understand the lyrics. If you didn’t grow up with ABBA or weren’t too familiar with the songs, some of the lyrics were muddled. At several points, my daughter turned to me and whispered “I have no idea what they are saying?” or “What did she just say?”

It’s a shame, too. You want to enjoy all the innuendo that makes ABBA music fun.

Bass has had sound problems in the past and even underwent a renovation to improve the sound among other things. Perhaps, after last night’s struggles, producers will rethink the sound mix for this stage to make it more understandable and more enjoyable.

The cast, though, makes this a fun show. The groom’s guy pals were especially phenomenal dancers and the mother’s two side kicks delivered laughs in both witty remarks and physical comedy.

Mamma Mia!” continues at Bass Concert Hall. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday. $30-$100. 2300 Robert Dedman Drive. texasperformingarts.org.