One-on-one with some of the stars of the fall performing  arts calendar in PDX.

Oregon Children’s Theatre

FallArts-junie-b“I was really outgoing,” says Kai Tomizawa, the 12-year-old star of Oregon Children’s Theater’s upcoming production of Junie B. Jones, The Musical.

As a 5-year-old, she recalls, she used to walk up to people and say, “Would you like to hear me sing?” They’d say yes, because who, save some unbearable grinch, says no when a child asks that question? Permission granted, she’d sing one of her favorite show tunes, maybe something from Les Miserables.

Again, she was 5.

She’s still more than happy to perform, though you might have to buy a ticket. After moving to Portland from the Bay Area with her family this year, she scored the role of Junie B. The production begins October 24 at the Newmark Theatre.

“I’m super excited,” Tomizawa says. “A little nervous.”

Mostly excited.

After moving to Oregon, Tomizawa took a couple of classes through OCT’s acting academy. One, not surprisingly, focused on Broadway musicals (Annie was another of her early favorites). The other worked with young actors on how to audition.

Maya Caulfield is a veteran of such programs — as you’d expect a 15-year-old to be. She started taking classes through OCT when she was 5 or 6. That means she’s been at this acting thing for nearly a decade.

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Caulfield says. “That’s crazy.”

She will appear this winter in OCT’s Geronimo Stilton: Mouse in Space, and she remembers well how Tomizawa must be feeling. Caulfield was 10 when she landed her first role, in On the Eve of Friday Morning. She was in school when she got the note, delivered via sticky note passed along by a school employee. On that note, her mother had written, “You got the part.”

“I was always a pretty dramatic kid who’d grab my parents’ hands and make them watch me,” Caulfield says. Theater was an outlet for that. “It put a label on what my passion was,” she says.

Tomizawa is clearly in possession of similar passions. She laughs and says she’s still working to believe she gets to play Junie B. Jones, a character pulled from the series of books by Barbara Park and illustrated by Denise Brunkus.

“My cousin gave me the entire series when I was about 7,” Tomizawa says. “I read every one.”

Because the story is told through the eyes of Junie, a first grader, and because first grade was nearly half-a-lifetime ago for Tomizawa, she’s been prepping for the role by hanging out with friends’ younger siblings, who’ll do the things younger siblings do and she’ll make a mental note and think, “I could use that.”

“She’s kind of precocious,” Tomizawa says of Junie. “Something I really like, when she has her eye set on something, she really goes for it.”

Which sounds a lot like Tomizawa. Now, can Junie B. sing Les Mis?

More info at octc.org.

Northwest Children’s Theater

FallArts-NWCT_Elephant_Piggie-0068
Joellen Sweeney as Piggie, and John Ellingson as Gerald, dreaming of their next adventure.

“I was a clown for about 15 years,” John Ellingson says. We all were, in one way or another, but Ellingson, assistant artistic director at Northwest Children’s Theater, means it literally. “I woke up at the age of 8 and decided I wanted to be a clown.”

His teacher was Rusty Nails, longtime star of Portland morning television and inspiration for Matt Groening’s Krusty the Clown. Rusty taught Ellingson all the tricks — from balloon art to magic shows. Musical theater was a natural next step. So obviously, he moved to Canada to attend the University of Victoria. “To discover acting,” he says.

He did that. He excelled at design and set building. Add that to the ability to sing and act and you’ve got a guy who can carve out a long career in the theater, which he began after college, when he returned to Portland. This is his 10th year working with NWCT artistic director Sarah Jane Hardy, but they met as teenagers.

“We used to do these musicals that were a little too hard,” Ellingson says. “Like a tap show and we’ve never tapped. These epic, epic outputs of energy, trying to do things that are beyond your reach.”

Perfect training for children’s theater.

This fall, NWCT will produce two shows, Elephant & Piggie’s We Are In a Play (September 26-October 25), and The Sun Serpent (October 3-24). Ellingson will star in the first and he’s designing the set for the second. That’s plenty of work. Now figure in that Elephant & Piggie will perform two shows a day, and then the stage will have to be set for The Sun Serpent.

Elephant & Piggie is based on the work of Mo Willems, a former Sesame Street writer. “Humorous and funny and incredibly poignant,” Ellingson says. Meta, too. Elephant and Piggie learn they’re in a play, and work through all the subsequent emotions. “I’ve always enjoyed using his books from a teaching and writing standpoint,” Ellingson says.

It’s a show for the littles, ages 4 and up. It’s a cast of five. They’ll perform that twice and then change the stage for The Sun Serpent, a bilingual work on the fall of the Aztecs. There are 50 different characters in various masks and set to digital projections. It’s pegged for the 8-and-up crowd.

In December, Ellingson will design the production of Shrek. Next year, he’ll direct Snow White. All of this fills him with as much excitement as your average 12-year-old embarking on a new show. A good part of that excitement is the ability to work with kids.

“I treat a 12-year-old on stage like I would treat an adult,” Ellingson says. “I’m continually impressed by how they rise to the challenge.”

More info at nwct.org.

Tears of Joy Theatre

FallArts-TearsofJoy1“Portland is a puppet town,” Emily Alexander says. Surely she’s right, for she knows puppets.

Once upon a time, Tears of Joy Theatre’s puppet wizardry operated out of a farm owned by her mother, Janet Bradley.

“They built a shop, and one part was construction,” Alexander says. The other was performance. “That was how I spent my pre-school days, watching rehearsals.”

In 1992, Alexander began performing with Tears of Joy. Until 2011, she was the company’s Education Director. That year, her mother died and the idea of working somewhere so closely associated with those memories was too much. Alexander turned to the arts-focused preschool she’d founded a year earlier.

“I honestly never wanted my mother’s job,” says Alexander, who now basically has her mother’s job. Bradley was co-founder and Executive Managing Director. Alexander is the new Executive Director, having stepped into the role to make sure the hard times the company had encountered didn’t last.

To do that, changes needed to be made.

Tim Giugni is the new artistic director. “He was touring (with Tears of Joy) 25 years ago,” Alexander says. Aside from the core K-through-5 audience, he’s interested in creating more options for adults. Think big-kid puppetry, the kind that goes with beer instead of juice boxes.

There’s also a change of venue. Tears of Joy’s four-show season — which kicks off this fall with The Reluctant Dragon and When Animals Were People is moving to the Sherwood Cultural Arts Center. In Portland, “there’s a lot of saturation, and venues are expensive,” Alexander says.

Each show will have one public performance. Two or three Saturdays a month, they’ll host small family shows at their space on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. The puppetry for adults – and you’re not alone in imagining Team America: World Police — is planned for Friday nights.

But touring and teaching — taking the stories to children, making the art form accessible to all — is what Tears of Joy does best, and it’s what they’re going to do more of. Alexander and Giugni know it well.

It’s an educational mission, one that squares perfectly with Tears of Joy’s history, and Alexander’s background. It’s the past, and it’s the future. If Tears of Joy was close to closing before, Alexander feels like it’s safer than ever now.

“In 30 years, if there’s no one else that can do it, we’ll maybe close the doors and have a real big party,” she says. “I don’t see that we can afford to lose Tears of Joy.”

More info at tojt.org.

Music, Together

FallArts-ORSymphonyA prime-time symphony performance can be a difficult endeavor for some kids. Some grown-ups, too. Sit still. Don’t make noise. Pay attention to the subtleties of Rachmaninoff’s interpretations of Paganini’s work.

Some symphony and a movie, however. That’s nice. On October 30, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, you can watch Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Oregon Symphony will provide the film’s score, and it should be a lot of fun. In December, they’ll tackle another holiday classic, Home Alone.

If those PG-rated flicks are still beyond your kiddo’s attention spans, Pam Mahon is back as the narrator and Paul Ghun Kee as the conductor in the popular Kids Concert series, which only last about an hour. First up is the space themed Blast Off! concert on Sunday, November 15. Mini Star Wars fans can hum along to John Williams’ Star Wars theme or more esoteric selections from Holst’s Planets suite. Young performers are on stage, too, via the Dance West troupe and the Pacific Youth Choir.

More info at orsymphony.org.

Encore, Encore

FallArts-Anything-Goes-01_1Looking for even more great performing arts to check out with the littles this fall? As Shakespeare said: All the world’s a stage.

Longtime PDX favorite Imago Theatre is getting a major facelift. But first, there’s one last chance this winter to catch ZooZoo, their innovative, wordless show. Think hippos with insomnia, introverted frogs, acrobatic worms and tricky penguins. Opens December 11, and runs through January 3. Ticket prices range from $17.50 to $34.50. More info at imagotheatre.com.

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking may have been simply shocking but these days — heaven knows! — Anything Goes. It’s as true today as it was when legendary lyricist Cole Porter first wrote it in 1934 (just ask Lady Gaga, who recorded a silky-smooth version with Tony Bennett.) Lakewood Theater Company’s staging of Anything Goes continues through October 18. Visit lakewood-center.org for pricing info.

The aerial acrobats at Echo Theater Company in SE Portland are experts at unconventional and unexpected storytelling, using few if any words at all. They’re bringing back last year’s popular, all-ages holiday show, Make It Home, from November 28-December 6. Check out echotheaterpdx.org for more info.

The inspiring young musicians of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony are back with a series of concerts spotlighting classical, jazz and big band sounds. Appearances include a November 15 show at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and community concerts later that month at Warner Pacific College and Glencoe High School in Hillsboro. More info at playmys.org.

Little kids love ballet, but sitting through a full-length performance can be tough for wigglers. That’s why we love the Thanksgiving weekend shows put on by the pre-professional students at the Portland Ballet, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, accompanied by a live orchestra. This year they’re bringing back Firebird, a big hit when it was staged two years ago. November 27-29. Visit theportlandballet.org for tickets and showtimes.

For many families, it wouldn’t be Christmas without going to see a Nutcracker performance by Oregon Ballet Theater. New artistic director Kevin Irving is hitting his stride, and the choreography is from the late, great George Balanchine. December 12-26. Visit obt.org for tickets and showtimes.

Some of the region’s most serious and talented young musicians play with the Portland Youth Philharmonic at venues all over the metro area. Their repertoire includes classics from composers including Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Mendolssohn. We have a special soft spot for their “cushion concerts” at the World Forestry Center in the spring, with an instrument petting zoo for kids after the show — look for more about those shows in future editions of MP. For now, visit portlandyouthphil.org for ticket info and show locations.

Ryan White
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