Watching as kids put on show

THEATER

Documentary follows students in Sondheim musical

Theater Column

December 23, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Nine months before the Kennedy Center's glorious 2002 Sondheim Celebration began, 143 students from seven Washington public schools began producing a Sondheim show of their own.

Into the Woods, Jr. - an abridged version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's fairy-tale musical - was one of the smaller-scale offerings in the Kennedy Center festival, but its goals and achievements are a stunning testament to the importance of arts education.

Those achievements are chronicled in Children Will Listen (the title is the name of a song in Into the Woods), an hourlong documentary that airs on MPT, Channels 22 and 67, at 9 p.m. Dec. 30.

Directed by Charlene Gilbert, the television program is more than an account of schoolchildren putting on a show. As Sondheim says at the beginning of the documentary, it shows how the students become interested not only in theater, but in their own imaginations.

Along with performing, the children are involved in the technical aspects of the production, such as designing the set and costumes. As background, a group visits a farm and also takes a walk in the woods.

On the farm, we see a child milking a cow. Later, answering a post-performance question from the student cast, Sondheim says his favorite character in the show is the cow. It's a lovely detail.

But what truly sets Children Will Listen apart is the way it allows us to see the creation of Into the Woods, Jr. through the children's eyes. This is accomplished through interviews with students and their parents, and also simply from our watching the wonder and joy on the children's faces the first time, for example, that they see the completed set, whose components they crafted by hand.

Children Will Listen should be required viewing for government officials who are responsible for or have ever contemplated cutting arts funding in the schools. The film's value is not just that it demonstrates that these kids can put on a show, but also that it demonstrates the broader skills the arts impart.

"I believe the arts teach us how to solve problems in a creative way, and those are lessons for life," says the musical's director, Rick Thompson. Before the first of the 22 performances of Into the Wood, Jr., he praises the cast for the good work they're doing and for the way they've learned to work together.

Sitting in the audience, watching one of the performances in the Kennedy Center's AFI Theater, composer Sondheim beams, then loudly applauds. Afterward, he tells the cast, "I hope you had a good time doing it 'cause we sure had a good time watching it."

That feeling is captured in this documentary, as is the confidence gained by the youthful cast members who stage a show that the director admits is difficult even for adults.

As they board the buses leaving the Kennedy Center for the last time, two of the youngsters look into the camera and announce, "I'll be back." This inspiring documentary makes you think they will.

Harriet Tubman tale

Steal Away: The Christmas Escape of Harriet Tubman, an original radio play by Kevin Daly, executive director of the Children's Theater Association, will premiere tonight at 7 on WYPR, 88.1 FM. The play is performed by adult actors who tour with the Children's Theater Association.

Steal Away commemorates the 150th year of the escape, Daly said. "In 1854, Harriet went from Philadelphia down to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and rescued her three brothers along with six other people just in the nick of time. Her three brothers were to be sold the day after Christmas at auction, and she arrived on Christmas Eve." Daly said the play has an additional Christmas component - one of the brothers' wives, whose name was Mary, gave birth to a baby on Christmas Day.

NEA grants

Two Baltimore theaters have been awarded National Endowment for the Arts grants in support of forthcoming productions. Center Stage has received $55,000 for the American premiere of Elmina's Kitchen. An inner-city drama by British West Indian playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, it begins performances Dec. 31. This is the theater's 10th consecutive NEA grant.

The NEA also awarded $8,000 to the Theatre Project for its production of a new work titled Walk a Mile in My Drawers: Rodney Dangerous-in-the-Field, The First Stand-up Slave Comic, which will premiere in October. An exploration of the history of black comedy and stereotypes, it will be written and performed by Joyce J. Scott, a Baltimore performance artist and Theatre Project veteran. The piece will be directed by Donald Hicken, head of the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

Meanwhile, Scott will perform at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 22 as part of Mo' Poe 2: Nevermo', a benefit for the theater that will also feature an excerpt from a Poe-based opera by Daniel Mark Epstein and Damon Ferrante. Tickets are $50 and include a reception. For more information, call 410-752-8558.

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