By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
For more than 20 years, the hottest ticket at the St. Albert International Children’s Festival, the festivities that officially herald the arrival of summer, has not been a children’s entertainer with sing-along proclivities and a TV contract. Or a pop band. Or a clown (no matter how endearing). No, the biggest mainstage sales have invariably been for the musical produced by a local theatre company — with a cast of kids.
St. Albert Children’s Theatre, which turns 37 this year, is the answer to the question “what does our Kids’ Fest have that the other Kids’ Fests on the cross-country circuit do not?” There is no shortage in the world of theatre in which adult actors play kids, for kid audiences. But the theatre company founded by Maralyn Ryan is, as long-time artistic director Janice Flower points out, a “unique case: kids performing for … everybody, kids and grown-ups and families.”
Their performing year includes challenging Broadway and Off-Broadway fare in the winter, and in this summer slot, one-act musicals and plays. “In the beginning it was hard to find hour-long shows in the (existing) repertoire,” says the enterprising, Flower. “So the kids and I wrote our own.” The first, in 1996, was Aesop’s Funky Fables. Four more S.A.C.T. originals followed. Since then Flower has been mining the Musical Theatre International catalogue, with its shorter “junior” editions of Disney musicals like The Little Mermaid or Aladdin, or adaptations of hit kids’ books.
The troupe performed outdoors, or in circus tents with, er, interesting acoustics. Sometimes they took productions to the Arden Theatre stage, and more recently to the theatre venue that the Kids’ Fest fashions in the Curling Club.
That’s where you’ll find Junie B. Jones The Musical starting today. It was adapted in 2005 from four of the 55 best-selling Barbara Parks books by the expertly witty New York team of Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich who created Dear Edwina. Grown-up audiences might recognize their song Taylor The Latte Boy, a cabaret favourite.
“The music is fantastic!” says director Flower, a veteran musical arranger herself, of the dozen or so songs in Junie B. Jones The Musical. “It’s so good we’ve been asking ourselves ‘why is this number so short?’ You just want it to go on….”
As you’ll know if you have kids Junie is a plucky, starchy little girl. In this show, it’s her first day in first grade, and she’s up against it. Her best friend Lucille doesn’t want to be her best friend any more, for one thing. For another, she can’t quite make out what’s on the blackboard, and might need (gasp!) glasses. And there’s a setback which I mustn’t reveal in Junie’s plan to be a kickball star. In short her “Top-Secret Personal Beeswax Journal” has a lot of inflammatory material to work with.
Flower, unfazable and genial, is directing a cast of 27 (only moderate in size by S.A.C.T. standards), ages nine to 17. “Everybody plays a Grace 1 kid. There are five adult roles (teachers, the cafeteria lady, etc.), so there’s double-casting — and in the case of two of those, it’s cross-gender.
The production values of S.A.C.T. productions are always startlingly high. It’s Flower’s dream to take the company on a tour of the country’s Kids’ Fests. “I think, I know, that people would be blown away!”
Of the 12 performances of Junie B. Jones The Musical this week at the Kids’ Fest, today through Sunday in St. Albert, eight are for school groups, and four are public. Don’t linger if you want a ticket ( put that in your own Top-Secret Personal Beeswax Journal).
Performance schedule: childfest.com
Tickets: Arden Theatre box office (in person or 780-459-1542) or ticketmaster.ca.
The eight-production mainstage lineup at the Kids’ Fest embraces theatre, music, dance, comedy circus arts, puppetry. 12thnight.ca talk to two of the country’s most innovative puppet theatres, L’Illusion Théâtre de Marionettes and Puzzle Théâtre.