Oregon Children’s Theatre
To kick off their new season, Oregon Children’s Theatre (OCT) will bring R. L. Stine’s popular Goosebumps series to life. Just in time for Halloween, the musical theater show will be “silly and spooky, not scary,” said artistic director Stan Foote, “where you scream … and then you laugh.”
OCT is known for creating new, original works, especially ones based on books that kids are reading right now, Foote said. In the past couple of years, the company has created shows based on Geronimo Stilton, Bad Kitty and Timmy Failure. For this coming 2016-17 season, the company will premiere an unprecedented three original shows based on best-selling books, the other two being Fly Guy: The Musical, premiering in January, and Flora & Ulysses, hitting the stage in late February.
To create Goosebumps, Foote enlisted a number of collaborators, including a playwright, a composer and Jeff Frank, artistic director at First Stage in Madison, Wisc.
The Goosebumps series, including a number of spin-off series, has more than 100 titles. “Dealing with this enormous canon, you can create an amalgam of different titles, create a new story, or focus on one piece,” said playwright John Maclay.
At first he had trouble figuring out how to approach the work. But when Foote brought the Goosebumps title Phantom of the Auditorium to the table, the two agreed the play-within-the-play storyline would be a perfect one to bring to the stage. “I suddenly saw the beginning, middle and end,” Maclay said.
The story follows Brooke and Zeke who are preparing to star in their school’s musical, The Phantom. They hear that the show is cursed; spookiness and hilarity ensue.
In writing the Goosebumps play for young audiences, Maclay worked to create a show to “keep you on the edge of your seat, but something that is not traumatizing.” He believes in creating shows the whole family will enjoy, “shows parents don’t have to muscle through.” In addition to writing the dialogue, he took a first pass at the songs, too. That’s when the composer came into the picture. “I had written a lot of terrible lyrics that were fixed by the brilliant Danny Abosch,” Maclay said.
Like Maclay, Abosch was always interested in creating family shows, and he grew up reading Goosebumps.
“I would send John a sketch of a song, and then we would play at it back and forth,” Abosch said, who drew inspiration from the organ and the vibraphone, from which spooky sound effects can be coaxed.
Once there was a working script, the artistic team gathered together a full cast of actors to workshop the play in a sort of 48-hour marathon session. Then the collaborators spent hours talking through the changes they wanted to make. “We did the rewrite and then had the cast perform a different version of the show the next day,” Maclay said.
After the script and songs were pretty set, composer Abosch had to “sit down and do all the time-consuming work,” including notation (writing it all down) and then the orchestration to turn it into a musical score.
Even after the months of creating, both Maclay and Abosch said the work is still not done. Maclay said, “My job doesn’t end until opening night.”
Goosebumps will premiere nearly simultaneously at both First Stage in Wisconsin and Oregon Children’s Theatre around Halloween. In Portland, the show runs October 22 through November 20 at the Newmark Theatre.
Soon after, another of OCT’s original new shows Fly Guy: The Musical will have its world premiere. Based on the book by Tedd Arnold, the story follows a boy’s pet fly as he competes in a talent contest and falls in love. It runs January 14 through February 12. More information on all OCT’s shows is available on their website, octc.org.
Northwest Children’s Theater
Elsewhere in town, Northwest Children’s Theater (NWCT) looked to create an original, fun twist on the classic, Sleeping Beauty.
Their version is a musical.
And it’s a puppet show.
And, they decided to put a bird in it. (How very Portland.)
Actually, make that many birds, noted Sarah Jane Hardy, NWCT’s artistic director. “Expect an entire flock of spectacular birds who have taken over NWCT’s space and want to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty their own way,” Hardy said.
Hardy collaborated with puppeteer John D. Ellingson on the show’s concept and script. Audiences have loved Ellingson’s puppets in past NWCT productions, so the company wanted to create an entire show with puppets, their first such effort.” John was fascinated by birds after his work on creating the Neverbird puppet for our Peter Pan a few seasons ago. Once we settled on a creating a cast of all bird characters to tell a tale, we thought Sleeping Beauty would be a perfect fit,” said Hardy.
Through the summer, Ellingson dove deep into puppetry to whet his chops for the full-length puppet production. He won a fellowship from the Portland Civic Theater Guild to attend the Beverly Puppet Festival in the United Kingdom and also participated in a nine-day puppet-making course at the London School of Puppetry. Back at home, NWCT’s technical director Steve Hambrick built a fully outfitted puppet workshop in Ellingson’s basement, allowing him to “experiment and create at will,” Hardy said.
“These birds will be everywhere: In the booth, the audience, the lobby, and of course on stage, providing a completely immersive experience for children,” Hardy said.
Early on, Ellingson and Hardy worked through the basics, researching many different versions of the Sleeping Beauty story, listening to a variety of musicians. Once they decided on a musical style (pop) and using birds as characters, Hardy roughed out the scene and song structure.
Hardy then brought on indie pop musicians Reece Marshburn and Marianna Thielen, who play around town as the Bylines, and the actors, who are also the puppeteers, to collaborate on the creation process. “We met with the actors so Reece and Marianne could get to know them and their voices,” Hardy said. “We had a workshop and asked all the actors to bring some of their favorite songs to sing for the group. We used the songs they picked to help us determine what kind of character traits each actor’s bird puppets might have.”
In addition to helping craft the songs and dialogue, three of the actors will use their Spanish-speaking skills to play bilingual bird characters. Unlike most common puppet shows, you can expect to see the actor-puppeteers at all times. Some actors will work several puppets in order to create all the characters in the show. And because each bird puppet is being made by Ellingson, they will be custom made to fit the hands of the specific puppeteer.
By mid-October, Hardy and her team will have a first draft ready to workshop. The Tale of Sleeping Beauty … with puppets! premieres later in the season, January 28 through February 26 on NWCT’s Mainstage.
Until then at NWCT, Rock the Presidents will get the whole family in the mood for the upcoming elections, closing October 22. This Schoolhouse Rock-tinged show is for grade schoolers who’ve been learning about the founding fathers (and mothers) — or who’ve been listening nonstop to the Hamilton soundtrack and are ready for more.
Two other familiar favorites are coming up soon: Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, running through October 23, also features Ellingsen as the titular cool cat. The show is “most enjoyed” by ages 3 and up — in other words, a just-right first theater experience. There’s also the beloved classic, The Wizard of Oz, on stage in December. More details at nwcts.org.
“Expect an entire flock of spectacular birds who have taken over NWCT’s space and want to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty their own way.”
A smaller company, known for their whimsical and physical works, Imago Theatre is presenting its first major new production in nearly a decade this season. Following in the footsteps of their international touring shows Frogz and ZooZoo, La Belle: Lost In the World of the Automaton is an adaptation of the original french fairy tale La Belle et La Bête published in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. (You’re probably more familiar with the story in its abridged form and with its English title, Beauty and the Beast.)
The company’s artistic co-directors and co-founders, Jerry Mouwad and Carol Triffle, spent five years looking for just the right story. And once they picked La Belle et La Bête, they said it took several tries until they found just the right way to adapt the story.
“We hired a collaborating writer (in 2013) who worked with us on the first script. We ended up throwing it away and starting over,” said Mouwad.
Then, during a long drive to Reno, Mouwad and Triffle had a good session of brainstorming and hit on the breakthrough approach they were seeking for La Belle. Their research had uncovered that La Belle et La Bête was often told to ship passengers to help pass the time.
“We thought, ‘What if this guy is on a ship?'” Mouwad said.
From there, Imago’s version of the story unfolded. La Belle would be a story-within-a-story set on a ship. The new script was completed in late 2014.
In the play, the ship’s engineer Sam Stoker shares the La Belle et La Bête love story with passenger Lady Rose, as their own parallel story plays out. The cast is made up of two actors and two puppeteers, plus puppets and automatons galore.
The creators say this production has pushed the company to draw from all the work they have created and experimented with over the years. “We are stepping out of our original genre of masked theatre,” said Mouwad. “This is the most complicated thing we have ever created.” And for a group that has pushed the boundaries with costumes, sets, masks, and puppets in the past, that says a lot.
The team of collaborators is a long list of folks whose differing sensibilities will contribute to the steampunk mashup sensibility of the show. Writer Devin Stinson brings some hip-hop flavor. Portland composers and sisters Alyssa and Amanda Payne throw in a trip-hop vibe. Lydia Ooghe, a composer from Los Angeles, was commissioned to add ragtime to the mix. Intricate puppetry, automaton fabrication and effects will come from the minds of Lance Woolen (known for his work on Coraline), as well as Erin Chmela and Bruce Bowman. There’s even a shadow designer — animator Jill Mackesey.
In other words, the Disneyfied, Alan Menken version this isn’t — but kids ages 4 and older should be just the right audience.
This new holiday show premieres December 9 and runs through January 8, at Imago Theatre. Details at imagotheatre.com.
“This is the most complicated thing we have ever created,” said Mouwad. And for a group that has pushed the boundaries with costumes, sets, masks, and puppets in the past, that says a lot.
Other performances around town
Fear No Music is a classical music group that highlights contemporary composers, especially those based in the Pacific Northwest, and also nurtures the next generation of composers. They’re putting on a fun and creepy Halloween party, New Music in Disguise, Vol. II, at Mississippi Studios on October 30. The all-ages afternoon show will feature the works of Stockhausen, Daugherty, Francis Schwartz, Daniel Felsenfeld and Whitney E. George. Fabulous costumes encouraged.
For fans of PBS’s Daniel Tiger, heir to the beloved Mister Rogers franchise, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood Live! brings the characters to life in an interactive musical theatre production. November 7 at Keller Auditorium.
Metropolitan Youth Symphony is one of the largest in the United States and one of the few to offer a jazz program. Their downtown Fall Concert is November 13 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Some of their jazz performers will be featured in one of the Fall Community Concerts, November 19 at Warner Pacific College.
Dancers from The Portland Ballet‘s various programs will perform John Clifford’s playful and beloved La Boutique Fantasque, as well as a new work by Anne Mueller, TPB’s co-artistic director and a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre. The annual Holiday Performance will feature live music by Portland State University Orchestra and takes place Thanksgiving weekend, November 25-27
at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall.
The Oregon Symphony has a number of family-friendly shows this season. Their winter-themed Kid Concert on November 13, Frozen Fairy Tales, should be a crowd pleaser, featuring music from Disney’s Frozen, The Nutcracker and other seasonal shows. The annual Gospel Christmas, running December 9-11, features the region’s premier gospel singers alongside the Oregon Symphony orchestra.
Bonus at the December 10 show: students from BRAVO Rosa Parks will perform a Prelude Concert in the lobby prior to the show. BRAVO is Oregon’s El Sistema inspired youth orchestra, working with underserved school children to drive social change. All Oregon Symphony shows are at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Did you know that Portland Youth Philharmonic, founded in 1924, is the country’s oldest youth orchestra? Their Fall Concert is November 12 and Concert-At-Christmas is on December 26, both at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.