If you think that children’s theater is kid’s stuff, guess again. The Theater Arts Department at Utah State University treats preparing its students for the unique challenges of performing for young audiences as serious business. But that doesn’t mean that watching their shows intended for children can’t be a delight for both young and old.
Their recent production of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane clearly illustrated that lesson. The sweet fable about a lost child’s toy learning to love while finding its way home was performed by seven talented USU students using stagecraft techniques intended specifically to capture and hold the attention of children.
All the members of the USU cast played multiple roles, skillfully assuming new characterizations on-stage without the benefit of makeup or costume changes.
Rebecca Swan headed the USU cast as the play’s narrator, which is an especially critical part in any children’s theater production.
Anne-Marie Kate was appealing as the young girl who loses her china rabbit. It was clear that many of the children in the audience closely identified with her portrayal.
Other memorable characterizations included Hanna Speer as the internal voice of Edward the rabbit and Cat Evangelho in a surprisingly endearing turn as a hobo’s pet dog.
Cameron Neeley, Nicole Frederick and Cameron Eastland rounded out the cast.
The USU students’ performances were enhanced by a simple but wildly effective set design by Dennis Hassan.
USU hosts a Theatre for Young Audiences production every two years. A play intended for children is selected, rehearsed and then groups of school children from throughout Cache Valley are invited to attend as a field trip. Learning takes place on both sides of the footlights during TYA performances. The school kids are exposed to live theater – many of them for the first time – while the USU students learn about the realities of performing for audiences of up to 700 children.
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is a beautifully crafted adaptation by Dwayne Hartford of the much-beloved 2006 children’s novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo. Hartford’s work is remarkable in that it operates on more levels than an express elevator. By retaining the fairy tale quality of Ms. DiCamillo’s story, its stage version is simple enough for children of all ages to understand. But Hartford doesn’t sugarcoat the lessons that Edward the china rabbit learns on this journey; the play’s youthful audiences are exposed (albeit gently) to many of life’s harsh realities including poverty, illness, cruelty and death.
On the other hand, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is sophisticated enough for adults to enjoy its stagecraft and performances. That was particularly true in the case of an outstanding production like the one presented by USU.