Theatre in Review

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. 


Published in Theatre in Review

Chicago Children’s Theatre World Premiere invites you to “Wonderland, Alice’s Rock and Roll Adventure”, and to delve into your curious imaginations. Chicago director Rachel Rockwell and music director Michael Mahler reinvented Lewis Carroll’s books Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass into a wild adventure of self-actualization.

Small, troubled, 7½ year-old Alice wants to feel ten feet tall, because after all, nothing matters at all when you’re feeling small. But that does not stop Alice from reaching her dream of becoming queen. Rockwell describes Alice as “an active protagonist. We’re talking girl power here, empowering girls, in particular, to boldly discover their true selves.” Ariana Burks, 15 years, and Isabelle Roberts, 12 years, steal the audience’s hearts, brilliantly playing Alice (both young ladies will be alternating performances as Alice).

Rockwell and Mahler uniquely interpreted the classic “Alice” stories into an inspirational rock and roll adventure. A new Alice in Wonderland soundtrack was created featuring sounds similar to Aerosmith, Kiss, Joan Jett, and David Bowie. With the perfect cast and crew, this performance is seamlessly executed. The live rock soundtrack, varying from classic rock to punk to ska, surrounds Alice as she learns valuable lessons from her friends in Wonderland. The Mad Hatter tells Alice to “do what you like, and like what you do.” Ironically, the short tempered Caterpillar reminds Alice to keep her temper. The unicorn at the end of Alice’s journey tells Alice to believe in six impossible things before breakfast, with the underlying message “believe in the impossible, and the impossible will believe in you.”  

As far as vision goes, the set perfectly captures the Victorian-grunge look. The stage’s floor resembles a chess board, and projections of gardens and hallways are plastered behind the cast to aid in the visual adventure. Costumes are also very fun and innovative to complement the colorful set. Costume designer, Mara Blumenfeld, turns the Cheshire Cat into a 1970’s lavish David Bowie. Cheshire Cat, Andrew Mueller, follows Alice throughout her journey and always wears a grin on his face because he knows the punch line. The Queen of Hearts, Molly Callinan, rocks the Joan Jett look and is completely mad when it comes to order and fairness. All the while, the Red Roses, Lillian Castillo and Regina Leslie, wear red bows and puffy red skirts, providing Alice with ridiculous advice, like “it takes a lot of work to be a natural beauty!” The Jabberwocky, also Andrew Mueller, is your worst nightmare… a punk rock demon. Complete with intimidating black spiky hair and tall, black boots, Alice must defeat the Jabberwocky; the negative thoughts and harmful monster created in her head. In this case, Alice smashes her demons, with a sensational solo on the drums. At the end of this crazy adventure, Alice learns to believe in herself and to never instill self-doubt in her head.

This performance calls for kids, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and school groups to join in the fun at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts! “Wonderland, Alice’s Rock and Roll Adventure” will make you laugh, it will make you shake, and it will tap your feet along with the beat.

“Wonderland, Alice’s Rock and Roll Adventure” performances are being held through May 24th at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. Tickets are $10-$38. Programs include fun activities for kids and lessons drawn from the themes of the play. For tickets and information, visit chicagochildrenstheatre.orgor call (872) 222-9555. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call (773) 227-0180 x 13 to learn about deeply discounted group rates for schools, playgroups, birthday parties, and scouting trips. Note: Groups can book an ASL- interpreted or Autism-Friendly performance by calling (773) 227- 0180 x 13 with a minimum of two week notice.

Published in Theatre Reviews



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