Theatre in Review

Monday, 22 January 2018 02:04

A Birthday Bash with a Timely – and Timeless – Message Featured

Written by
A Birthday Bash with a Timely – and Timeless – Message Photo by Charles Osgood

Having spent a good majority of my adult life producing books and media for children, I like to think I’m a good judge of content directed at the young of year, as well as the young at heart. I’m also quite an exacting critic when it comes to such content, which is why I was worried I’d be a bit hard on the Chicago Children’s Theatre’s current production, My Wonderful Birthday Suit.

It’s also why – aside from the fact that I prefer dates that are both brainy and beautiful – I was accompanied by my five-year-old daughter to this past Sunday’s performance…I might consider myself a child at heart, but I wanted to see how the show connected with an actual child, too. So, in we walked to the theatre’s location at the near west side Station, this perky and perceptive young woman and her skeptical pops.

We arrived at the party early – she fashionably, me not so much – and were invited to sit at one of several tables covered in crayons and colorful paper leaves to decorate. I’ve gotta admit, as a father with an attention span equal to his preschooler’s, something to do while waiting was awfully thoughtful.

When the theater doors opened, we joined the flock of eager youngsters and Sunday morning oldsters finding seats and checking out the stage.

At first glance, I thought the set looked simple, but as my date and I studied it before the show started, it proved to be full of delights. A giant burlap tree in the center of a bright living room. Shining gifts to either side. Colorful picture frames on the walls. We were intrigued, the both of us. The jaunty ragtime piano playing over the PA system only added to the whimsy.

When the show started and the first character – Ooblahdee – appeared, her rainbow tights and sparkling smile welcomed us into her whimsical world. Our red-headed hostess Darci Nalepa was dolled up for children’s theater, sure, but from the get-go she showed she’s got the energy and openness for the job. Tossing herself Raggedy-Ann-like across the floor when needed, singing songs when called for, Nalepa most importantly avoids the mistake too many make when performing for kids – she doesn’t talk down, she doesn’t condescend. She inhabits this onstage world as if it’s a given and invites us – the audience – to join her there.

Soon enough, Nalepa’s Ooblahdee was joined by her best friend, Ooblahdah – a prancing, pouting, purple pal played by puckish scene-stealer Will Wilhelm. Wilhelm’s a great id for Nalepa’s girl-next-door protagonist, sneaking a peak at a present, worrying about friendships, the kind of stuff that all of us do but that only kids get to admit to.

And after Melanie Brezill’s Shebopshebe arrives for her birthday, her party, and her presents, Wilhelm’s next act of honesty is to question her being “brown.”

For such a complex thing, prejudice is really pretty simple. So simple that it’s perhaps best illustrated by a childlike character in a child-friendly setting.

And just like how us adults might sometimes ignore the uncomfortable, Brezill’s character seems to do so at first. But then, after Wilhelm again shows displeasure at the tone of her skin, Brezill shows her stuff. She’s brown, she’s proud, and despite her small size, she lets her fellow characters and the audience know just why she’s proud of being brown.

After this bit of birthday conflict, things of course wrap up nicely. There are bows, there are gifts, there are hugs. There’s even a bird puppet inside that burlap tree that lays birthday bows instead of eggs.
The children in the audience seemed riveted throughout the show – by the set, by the actors, by the story. My only suggestion is that kids are by nature interactive little critters. At the end of the show, there was a moment where the fourth wall was broken and the actors asked the audience for responses. The children were, naturally, eager to respond. But I thought the prompts and the interaction could perhaps be polished a bit, could perhaps be more naturally incorporated into the show.

But now, as I sit here thinking about what the children’s responses showed that they’d learned – and their responses to the show throughout – I realize that perhaps children aren’t the audience for the play’s message of inclusivity and acceptance. Perhaps children, despite their own honest opinions or maybe because of them, already innately know the lesson that Gloria Bond Clunie’s My Wonderful Birthday Suit is trying to teach us – that a gift’s wrapping doesn’t matter nearly as much as what’s inside. Maybe the show was meant to teach said lesson to those of us who are children no longer, even if we want to think we are. And so, while the trappings and theatrics might target the youngest in the crowd, Chicago Children’s Theatre’s latest production is really meant for children of all ages.

My Wonderful Birthday Suit is being performed at the Chicago Children's Theatre through February 18th. 

 

 

 

10 Years! Fave Issue Covers

Register

Latest Articles