Sowing the Purest Form of Art

COMMENT

April 24, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

I know someone once said it much better than this, but what makes theater, at least good theater, so magical is its ability to reach the child within each of us.

We've all been there: Those moments when, oblivious to the manipulations of plot, we are seized by a moment so profound and truthful that we are left vulnerable, awed -- and childlike.

And since there must be something pure in theater that appeals to our child selves, so theater that is staged for children must be the purest form of the art.

I say that as a way to convey the great praise some Howard countians deserve in enriching the lives of children through theater. Not only is it due to the countless acting programs, dance classes and music lessons, it is the countless Howard residents who devote themselves to bringing this magic to children.

I got a chance to talk to a few of those people recently. All are county residents involved in creating theater for children in partnership with Toby's Dinner Theater, arguably Howard's premier arts institution.

The people I'm referring to -- one playwright and two composers -- struck me, not just because they exemplify some of the talent that is here in Howard. They have also managed to keep in touch with what it is to be a child, and to give that back to children in a way that excites their imaginations and challenges their thinking.

That talent can be seen currently in two productions appearing at Toby's -- "The Secret Garden," adapted by Carol Graham Lehan, with music and lyrics by Tom French; and "Peter Rabbit," adapted by Ms. Lehan and composed by Tom Alonso.

Ms. Lehan, a 34-year-old wife and mother of two, has lived in Howard for six years but her interest in theater, like those of her collaborators, has been life long.

"I grew up in a theater family," she said. "We would take stories all the time and adapt stuff without even thinking we were writing."

She has become a local jack-of-all-trades. Besides writing, she is the artistic director of Toby's Youth Theater productions. She also teaches acting at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County and is an actor herself, most recently playing Anna in Toby's production of "The King and I."

Clearly, she has the energy of a child, working on productions by day, writing by night and formulating ideas for new plays months in advance. Those ideas, often enough, crystalize in the car when she is providing taxi service for her kids, she says.

By repeatedly describing to them the story on which she is working at the moment, she begins to see the play through their eyes. From their questions and responses, everything becomes more clear; the plot, the important characters and the moral, she said.

The rest, of course, is magic.

Tom Alonso knows that magic. He was, as the cliche goes, born in a trunk. His parents met when they were singers for the Baltimore Opera, for which his mother also played the piano.

"I grew up backstage," says Mr. Alonso, in a voice that even at 37 betrays a little boy's enthusiasm.

In addition to "Peter Rabbit," Mr. Alonso wrote the music and lyrics for Toby's own 1992-production of "The Phantom of the Opera." Prior to that he was the composer for "Footsteps in the Sky," a production of the Kennedy Center in Washington that still tours the area.

A lifelong resident of the county, he divided his time several years ago between here and New York, where he wrote and sold commercial jingles.

He found, however, that he could live full-time in Howard and still make a comfortable living composing.

Tom French feels likewise. In addition to composing for Toby's, he is musical director at a dinner theater in Montgomery County.

His goal, he says, is to "bring a level of sophistication to children's theater."

Toward that end, he and Ms. Lehan have produced a promotional tape of another of their endeavors for Toby's, last year's bright and entertaining "Velveteen Rabbit." "The Secret Garden" has also been recorded, and both tapes are being mailed nationwide in search of a broader audience.

If they make it big, it will be one reason regional theater is such a tremendous asset to any community.

Another reason is that it enriches the lives of children, not to mention the child within each of us.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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