'El Zorrito: The Legend of the Boy Zorro' review: A classic tale told with gusto

Sunday, May 06, 2012
By Richard Wattenberg, Special to The Oregonian

Just in time for Cinco de Mayo, the Northwest Children’s Theater and School presents a bilingual world premiere adaptation, “El Zorrito: The Legend of the Boy Zorro” — a rip-roaring, swashbuckling adventure for the young and the young at heart.

With a book by Milo Mowery, music by Rodolfo Ortega and lyrics by Mowery and Ortega, this spirited musical entertainment takes us back to the California of the late 19th century. In Capistrano, a town tyrannized by the greedy Mayor Ramon (John Ellingson), the young Diego (Michael Keppler Meo), still just a boy, takes up the black mask, black cape and red-handled sword to fight for justice.

He undermines and infuriates the nasty Ramon, and yet when the mayor sends off to Spain for the Beserker (Paul Susi), a large bull of a warrior who is as fast and fine with a sword as El Zorrito, it looks as if our hero may have met his match.

But there’s no reason to worry, El Zorrito proves to be up to the challenge.

The tale may not be new, but writer Mowery, composer Ortega and director Sara Jane Hardy tell it with gusto. Ortega’s spirited music is especially wonderful in setting the tone and mood with its traditional folkloric elements.

Still, what really drives the play is the energetic and surprisingly mature performance of Michael Kepler Meo, who portrays El Zorrito. Meo has a strong, clear, melodious voice. While some of the other singers may not be as well-trained as he is, Meo more than makes up for weaknesses elsewhere on stage. The high point of the show is his stirring rendition of “Zorrito He is Me,” which brings Act I to an emotionally rousing conclusion.

The rest of the cast provides solid support. Verónika Núñez does well as Diego’s caring and unexpectedly fiesty Mother — particularly in scenes when she too has to wield a sword. Kevin-Michael Moore delightfully plays up the clownish pantomimic antics of Diego’s loyal mute servant, Bernardo; Susi is humorously scary and ultimately likeable as the hired “gun” or sword, Beserker; and Sophie Keller nicely traces the twisting, turning loyalties of the mayor’s daughter Christina.

Finally, in the roles of Mayor Ramon and his inept sidekick Claude, John Ellingson and Duane Hall are playfully amusing — although at times Ellingson may go a little over the top. In this regard, he’s not helped by his costume. Although the always wildly imaginative Mary Rochon does an excellent job in her creation of the flamboyant Spanish and Californio costumes, her “get up” for the mayor may be a bit much. Wearing a leather tailcoat with exaggeratedly padded shoulders and multi-color vest and pants, this abundantly whiskered villain appears to be much more cartoonish than any of the other characters.

Still, Rochon’s lively color palette blends well with that of kollodi’s cleverly designed scenery. kollodi gives us a cheerful looking plaza for the town scenes, but when action shifts to the mayor’s abode, the plaza arcades open up to become the broad arches and walls of the mayor’s ample reception hall. The multi-hued décor and costumes are not only appropriate to the show’s display of “local color” (which includes a skillfully performed traditional Mexican folk dance known as the Machete Dance) but also adds vibrancy to the dazzling sword fights that so excite the younger audience members.

With multiple references to Cinco de Mayo, this festive musical play seems quite timely, but as a fun-filled entertainment it should amuse youthful and not so youthful audiences even as we leave this year’s fifth of May celebrations behind.

Review: NWCTS “Rapunzel – Uncut”

January 29, 2012
Review by Amy Seahold - Portland mom and PDX Kids Calendar reader
PDX Kids Calendar

The Brothers Grimm could never have imagined their story of a long-tressed maiden locked in a tower as a rock musical. Particularly because, if I have my history right, rock musicals were a few years away from being invented when they wrote it. Still, the latest production from the Northwest Children’s Theater, Rapunzel – Uncut, is closer to the original Brothers Grimm story than it is to the Disney musical version.

The younger reviewers in our group, both under seven, were able to follow the story easily once it was explained that the Rapunzel they’re referring to, at first, is a plant. That point clarified, my daughter instantly recognized that this was going to be “like the book and not the movie,” and all was well. The music was fun to listen to, the action appropriately silly, and the set kept simple enough to imagine a 40 foot tower while only requiring that the characters make a snippet of the climb. Get it? Snippet. Hair. Groan.

There is a lot going for the Northwest Children’s Theater that makes a visit worth your time. The venue is inside the beautiful, classically colonnaded Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center. The theater is cozy and close. Nearly every seat in the house, save the far sides of the room, is a good one. The costumes, for a small production company, are really fabulous. Also very sparkly. And really, to kids, isn’t this the same thing? For me, the most charming aspect is that this is a theater school, so productions often pair more experienced actors on stage with younger people, some making their debut.

The more practiced actors and their voices were quite polished, including Peter Schuyler as Rapunzel’s birth father, and Whitney Martin as Rapunzel’s birth mother, both new assets to NWCT but not new to the stage. Jenny Standish was excellent as Roswitha the crone, the strangely likeable villain. Yet there were standouts among the younger actors, too. Rebecca Fitzgerald, playing Rapunzel, shows great maturity in her stage presence considering she is just a sophomore in high school. And Stephanie Roessler, a high school freshman, has a bright future ahead. Despite her role as a couple of secondary characters with only a few lines, her excellent timing provided the kids’ favorite comic relief. There were a few sound issues, but other than that, things seemed to work like a well-oiled pair of scissors after intermission. Most of that can probably be written off to opening night jitters and glitches. The adults in our group were most impressed with the band, a quartet of talented kids fronted by lead guitarist Taylor Newville, who at one point stole the stage with a rocking solo.

The production does tackle a few of the dark aspects of the original story, including the unfortunate blinding of Rapunzel’s crush, Werther, played by Joshua James Hooper. There are some clever tidbits, too, including the naming of Persinette, the title of the original story from the 17th century from which the Grimms modified their tale. But in the end all is kept light – if not a little strange given the kidnapping and treachery – when all is forgiven and, as it should be in a production meant to entertain the younger set, all live happily ever after.

The tale runs 90 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission. Arrive early for parking. The building has a lot, but it fills up quickly and street parking may require you to walk a few blocks. Plan to stay after to allow kids time to meet the actors and actresses, who are happy to sign programs and take pictures after each performance.

Amy and her family were given tickets to attend the opening night performance of NWCTS Rapunzel – Uncut

on behalf of PDX Kids Calendar.

Amy Seaholt is a Realtor and mom in Portland.

NWCT’s Willy Wonka

December 13, 2011
Sarah Pagliasotti - MetroParent

The Experience: Our family has seen lots of shows this season, for the sake of these reviews. But Northwest Childrens Theatre’s current production of Willy Wonka, based on the book “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl, is my 7-year-old’s “favorite show so far.”

There’s a lot to like, starting with solid performances from the cast, particularly Wonka himself. Then there are the familiar and surprisingly haunting tunes from the Oscar-nominated musical – you’ll be surprised to be reminded that this is where they came from. Add colorful costumes and creative sets, plus Oompa Loompas and the lure of an entire play devoted to candy, and it’s no wonder it’s a kid favorite – and one of mine, too.

One note: The show is pretty true to the book, which covers themes of greed and overindulgence. Part of this is an entire scene devoted to how much one child eats, and how fat he is as a consequence, which might make some uncomfortable. It’s a lighthearted scene, but could be worth a family chat prior to the show.

PS – Plan time to let your kids join the “meet and greet” afterward, where the cast will sign programs and take pictures with fans. Your kid may even be inspired to sign up for acting class. (NWCT offers classes and summer camps too!)

Inside information: Willy Wonka runs about an hour and a half plus a short intermission; it’s best for ages 6 and older. Smaller kids can often see better with a free seat cushion to lift them up; get there early to secure one from the back of the auditorium. If you have antsy ones the back row still has a great view and lets your kid stand up or fidget without blocking anyone’s view.

Saint Cupcake’s Golden Ticket Contest Visit Saint Cupcake Galore (1138 SW Morrison) this December and you could be one of five lucky Golden Ticket winners. Purchase one of Saint Cupcake’s limited edition “Wonka” cupcakes; if you find a Golden Ticket you’ll win:

  • 4 tickets to Willy Wonka.
  • A delicious assortment of treats from Saint Cupcake
  • An autographed Willy Wonka poster, signed by the entire cast, AND
  • A personal backstage tour after the show, led by Willy Wonka himself!


The 411 - Performance dates: Performance dates: Runs through Jan. 1; check website for show times. Tickets: $18 to 22 adults, $13 to 18 youth, plus charges. Location: 1819 NW Everett St. Contact: 503-222-2190;

'Willy Wonka' review: A childlike Wonka-esque whimsicality is this production's golden ticket

Sunday, December 10, 2011
By Richard Wattenberg, Special to The Oregonian

If you're tired of Santa's villages but are looking for some pleasant family fun, you can always visit Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. The Northwest Children's Theater brings a sprightly production of Roald Dahl's "Willy Wonka" to the stage of the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center. Directed and choreographed by Sarah Jane Hardy, the play is full of good music, good cheer, and playfully delivered moral messages.

As in the original 1964 novel and the two film adaptations, the theater version revolves around the contest which brings five fortunate children, who happen to find golden tickets under the wrapping of their favorite Wonka candy bars, to Willy's factory for a special tour. While these children don't know it, more is at stake than a tour of the mysterious candy factory and the promise of a lifetime supply of Wonka's tasty chocolate.

As Willy tells us early on, he's looking for an heir to his empire of sweets. Only one of the children, the penniless lad from a loving family, Charlie Bucket, is truly deserving. The others are spoiled by overly indulgent parents, too much television, and bad habits, and during the course of the show they receive their just deserts -- and these are not of the dessert variety. While things get a little dicey even for gentle little Charlie, all turns out fine in the end.

John Ellingson nicely nails the role of the enigmatic candy king Willy Wonka. Adorned in his multicolor, sequined waist coat, red and gold striped trousers, bright red cravat and tails, and signature oversized top hat, he is sometimes humorously goofy and at other times slightly menacing even sinister in his sarcasm. For the most part, however, he is a benevolent presence. This is especially true as he hovers in the background, thoughtfully overseeing Charlie's scenes with his family.

As the poor boy who is honest and true, the young Connor Johnson is strong. He ably conveys the character's openheartedness and works especially well with Kevin-Michael Moore's affectionate but crackling old Grandpa George.

The endearing songs made popular in the 1971 musical film adaptation starring Gene Wilder are here. Ellingson gives us a measured version of "Pure Imagination" and he also does well by "The Candy Man." The always fun Oompa-Loompas --– here dressed in pale pastel pumpkin breeches, striped tights and eccentric over-garments and each outfitted with a wild white haired wig -- carry off their various Oompa-Loompa songs moralizing on the mistakes of the not-so-good children with humorous aplomb.

Director Hardy collaborates effectively with scene designer Mina Kinukawa, costume designer Shana Targosz and lighting designer Kristeen Willis Crosser to create a sense of Wonka's pure imagination. While the costumes and set pieces representing Charlie's humble milieu outside the chocolate factory are multicolored but mostly in grays and browns, everything else in the play is full of cheerful, rosy pastels. Hardy skillfully choreographs the large cast of actors as well as the hefty mobile rainbow-colored staircase units and background pieces that represent the inside of Willy's factory. In doing so, she provides us with a dynamic sense of Wonka's fanciful domain.

The play's commentary on greediness and technological addictions may resound with no less meaning than it did 40 years ago, but it's the production's childlike Wonka-esque whimsicality that is its strength.

 Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells at NWCT

October 11, 2011
Sarah Pagliasotti - MetroParent

The Experience: Hero to sassy girls the world over, Junie B. Jones shines in the lively new play at Northwest Childrens’ Theatre based on the bestselling series by Barbara Park. Junie B. and her classmates show us just how trying first grade can be. And NWCT is the perfect troupe to perform this show – the mostly child-cast delivers with solid acting and well-executed physical humor that deftly breaks up the dialogue into kid-friendly chunks.

My girls, 5 and 7, belly-laughed constantly, and remained rapt for the entire 85-minute show. They agreed it was “awesome and mischievous,” to quote Josie, 7. And though Junie B. isn’t always the poster child for good behavior, the play’s ending makes a great starting point for a family chat about doing the right thing.

Parents of boys, be assured: even though the main character is a girl, the show had the boys around us in stitches. Interesting boy characters (including Junie B.’s best friend), plus ample belching and sneezing jokes, keep them hooked.

The most fun for parents, though, is the chance to steal a glance at your kids while they’re mesmerized by the show, mouths open and eyes focused, and watching them laugh with their entire bodies at the funniest parts. That alone is worth the modest ticket price.

PS – Plan extra time to let your kids join the “meet and greet” afterward, where the cast signs programs and takes pictures with fans. Who knows? Your youngin’ may even be inspired to sign up for acting class. (NWCT offers classes and summer camps too!)

Inside information: Junie B runs about an hour and a half including a short intermission; it’s best for ages 5 and older. Smaller kids can often see better with a free seat cushion to lift them up; get seats early to secure one from the back of the auditorium. If you have antsy ones the back row still has a great view and lets your kid stand up or fidget without blocking anyone’s view. And, if you’re looking for an inexpensive post-show dinner, check out nearby Elephants Deli (NW 22nd and Couch) or Noodles and Company (NW 10th and Couch).

The 411 - Performance dates: Performance dates: Runs thorough Oct. 30; check website for show times. Tickets: $18 to 22 adults, $13 to 18 youth, plus charges. Location: 1819 NW Everett St. Contact: 503-222-2190;

Theater review: 'Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!' captures Junie B's world of rule-breaking fun

Sunday, October 09, 2011
By Holly Johnson, Special to The Oregonian

Rules, rules, rules. In Junie B's world, they're made to be at least questioned, if not broken.

"Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!" at the Northwest Children's Theatre drops us into the Crayola-colored world of the saucy first-grade heroine of Barbara Park's popular kids book series. It's holiday time, and in Room One that means gift-giving and carol singing. But Junie B. (the spritely Alexa Blaskowsky) is having a hard time getting in the spirit.

When she picks the name of her nemesis May (Annika Beth Cutler) during the Secret Santa drawing, she's faced with a dilemma: Should she give tattletale May a lump of coal or give her the cool Squeeze-a-Burp contraption she bought for herself? They're enemies, after all. When the two go after each other, they're threatened with a joint visit to the principal's office "This is the whole problem with school," Junie B. insightfully observes. "One minute you're all happy, the next minute it gets all sucked out of you."

The play bubbles over with humor, mostly from the funny things the kids say ("Sometimes grammar makes my head explode.") But life isn't always easy in school. Junie B. recalls the disastrous Columbus Day pageant in one delightful flashback where the three ships capsize and the map of the world is accidentally pulled down by the teacher, Mr. Scary (Lucas Welsh).

Wonderful malpropisms from the kids run through the show, like "shellfish" for "selfish" and "piracy" for "privacy." One even confuses irises with viruses. In the story for the stage adapted by Allison Gregory from three different Junie B. books, youngsters examine the complexity of simple issues (a magic powder called Vomit Absorbent becomes an object of fascination), but the script never patronizes them. Our vivacious leading lady with the flyaway red hair, metallic pink sneakers and striped tights usually does the wrong thing first, then gets it right. What child, or adult, can't identify with that?

The young cast, joined by three adult actors, has jolly good fun onstage in this 85-minute show with one intermission. Erik James lumbers about in the dual roles of Grandpa Miller and Mr. Toot the music teacher adds a cartoon quality, and Erin Fried as Junie's talking stuffed elephant Philip Johnny Bob adds a dash of goofy surrealism to the show. Henry Martin is funny and appealing as Jose, the one Spanish-speaking kid in the first grade, and Isabel Ayala is simply grand as preening Lucille, the wealthiest child in school, who never misses a chance to lord it over the rest.

Carl B. Hamilton's glowing, serviceable set warmed the whole auditorium with its checkered red-and-gold trimmed proscenium (Junie's B.'s signature pattern). Costumes provided by Hanna Andersson and put together by costume designer Shana Targosz offer a profusion of color and patterns that add to the glow. Rodolfo Ortega's brisk accompanying music fits Junie B.'s character perfectly. Rule-breaking has never been so flamboyant and fun.

'Snow White' review: This is not your typical 'Snow White'; it's better

Sunday, May 08, 2011
By Carol Wells, Special to The Oregonian

From the luscious, juicy costumes to the exuberant score, every theatrical component is fully explored to its most joyful limit in Northwest Children's Theater's retelling of "Snow White." 

In this modern, and much more inspiring, version of the tale by Northwest playwright Milo Mowery, Snow White and her stepsister Rose Red (played by Natalie Hovee and Lea Zawada, respectively, both charismatic young actors whose future work on the stage will bear watching) are martial artists, bent on improving their fighting skills. As in the Grimm Brothers fairy tale and the Disney movie, the theme of beauty is central, but here the emphasis shifts from outer beauty (Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in the land is fairest of all?) to that of beauty as a spiritual trait and a heroine who must learn to use its power wisely. 

Director Sarah Jane Hardy's vision to tell the story using techniques from anime, the Japanese animation form, has given costume designer Mary Rochon the green light to dress her main characters in layers of bright patterned fabrics that somehow all go together, to create a lazy cat in a hoop dress (the adorably indifferent Kerry Ryan) and a neurotic mirror (Kevin-Michael Moore, who brings humor and magic to the role) whose costume sparkles with silver. 

Instead of seven dwarves, Snow White encounters seven spirits, each of whom has something to teach her about the true meaning of beauty. This provides the opportunity for some surprising moments that both innovatively use, and draw attention to, theatrical techniques, as when Shinigami (wonderfully played by John Ellingson), costumed and made up like a character from a Japanese woodblock print and representing the spirit of death, tries to hide. A single spotlight searches the stage, comes close to him and, in a simple but breathtaking movement, he raises his arms, gives the golden orb a push, and we watch it bounce away like an otherworldly volleyball. 

Also demanding recognition for their fine efforts are set designer Jeff Seats, Ellingson for his work as scenic artist, lighting designer Jeff Forbes, Deirdre Atkinson as the Queen, and Conner Reed as the Huntsman.  

 Robin Hood at Northwest Children’s Theater

February 1, 2011

The Experience: The legend of Robin Hood continues to thrill, as Northwest Children’s Theater and School (NWCTS) takes on a new telling by formerly-local playwright James Moore.

In this version, Maid Marion wears the pants (literally), Robin is upstaged by The Kid, and it’s all played for laughs. The acting by both the adults and the children is outstanding, but a few of the professionals steal the show. NWCTS resident actor John Ellingson is hilarious as the punk-rock/ dandy Will Scarlett, and Kevin-Michael Moore shines as the Sheriff of Nottingham, parading around the stage in a zebra-striped coat and pink-feathered cap.
Narrator Lesley Berkowitz leaps with agility from tree to tree, in a simple setting that is a perfect backdrop for the flamboyant costumes. Running jokes, such as those about taxes – brass tax, thumb tax, and which came first, the chicken tax or the egg tax? – keep the adults laughing throughout, while the sword fighting in the final scene rivals anything Errol Flynn ever dished out.

Inside information: If you liked what you saw, you can support NWCTS’s mission by attending their annual gala on February 25. The Mardi Gras-themed event will include a silent and a live auction, with all proceeds going to NWCTS. Tickets are $75. For more information, call 503-222-4480, or visit

Theater review: Updated 'Robin Hood' fares well in hands of Northwest Children's Theater

January 29, 2011
By Holly Johnson, Special to The Oregonian

Robin Hood disguised as Russell Crowe, Maid Marian in trousers wielding a sword, the Sheriff of Nottingham all decked out in exotic pink feathers and zebra skins: The traditional story of “Robin Hood” takes on a fresh flavor in this hilarious new version by james moore, written for the Northwest Children's Theater’s entry in the Fertile Ground Festival of new works.

It’s some time in the distant past in the verdant forest of Sherwood, and the peaceful, well-behaved citizens of the area have been taxed up to the teeth by the greedy sheriff (Kevin-Michael Moore creates a delectably funny squawking, strutting cartoon character). There’s a thumb tax (everyone knows thumbs are a luxury), a brass tax, which is really hard on musicians, an egg tax and a chicken tax: No one knows which came first.

King Richard, the good guy, is away at the Crusades, so his younger brother Prince John (Theo Buchanan) is on the throne, and making a dog’s dinner of the government. He’s in cahoots with the sheriff’s heavy-duty tax plan, as is the sheriff’s right-hand thug Sir Guy (Lucas Welsh).

Robin Hood and his pals -- Friar Tuck, (Bryan Kinder) Little John, (Eric James) Will Scarlet (John Ellingson as a vision in red) and Much the Miller (Aidan Jung) -- have their work cut out for them, when into their midst lands a young person (aka “The Kid,” vigorously sketched by Stephanie Roessler), who wants to join the band.

It appears this youngster’s parents have been imprisoned in the local dungeon for tax evasion, and Robin Hood and his Merry Men set to work to help them escape. But not before there’s a local archery contest, which Robin enters disguised as Russell Crowe so the sheriff won’t learn his true identity, and nab him.

There are rumors of romance between Robin and Maid Marian (Jennie Spector), who can fend for herself with a sword, thank you very much. In fact, some very authentic-looking swordplay choreographed by fight director Kendall Wells makes this a real action entertainment. The lavish film-score music composed by Rodolfo Ortega accompanies a Hollywood-style kiss or two between Robin and Marian, but then she is off to save the day, obtaining the dungeon keys and helping all the tax evaders to escape.

The whole story is charmingly narrated by a young woman (played by Lesley Berkowitz) whose true identity is revealed at the end.

Moore’s script is full of wonderful lines like “This has the French written all over it” and “I am so far ahead of you it is already tomorrow,” uttered by the wily sheriff. Without preaching, the play offers ideas on choosing friends to youngsters. Robin picks his pals for their loyalty, shared values and his respect for them. The naughty sheriff chooses people he can manipulate. Just because he’s on the side of the so-called law doesn’t mean he’s good for the common man.

Costumes by Mary Rochon, the company’s resident designer, are a fantasy profusion of patterned tights, glittery bodices and sparkling hats. Jeff Seats’ bare-bones set with plenty of platforms for climbing and movement is marvelously versatile. The story of Robin Hood may go as far back as the Green Man in English folk lore, but like any great classic, it’s ripe for new versions. This one’s a hoot for kids and adults alike.

The show runs about an hour and 55 minutes with one intermission.

Theater review: ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ not just for kids

October 3, 2010
Holly Johnson, Special to The Oregonian

Ever have one of those days? One of those no-dessert-in-your-lunchbox, tripping-over-your-skateboard, losing-your-best-friend, gum-in-your-hair days, when things just go from bad to worse?

Children have crummy days (even though parents may ignore the fact) just as adults do, as Judith Viorst's popular 1972 kid's book "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" points out. And it's OK to call it a crummy day, and go on to the next, hoping things will get better.

The Northwest Children's Theater has mounted a vibrant, funny musical play version of the story, first performed in 1998 at New York's Kennedy Center, with book and lyrics by Viorst and likable tunes by Shelly Markham. All the young actors in the NWCT production play characters their own ages -- most are around 10. Henry Martin is another talent find for the company as Alexander. He's a petite, button-nosed kid with a big voice, an expressive face and sharp timing. When he's onstage, it's hard to look anywhere else.

Alexander gets up in the morning, and if you know the book, he's horrified to find gum in his hair, then trips over his skateboard, then accidentally drops his sweater in the bathroom sink (played by an actor with a spigot on her head) . The mundane details of life are suddenly overwhelming, and in a group number at the start, Alexander and the other kids sing "If I Were in Charge of the World," ("If I were in charge of the world, there'd be brighter night lights, healthier hamsters and basketball baskets 48 inches lower"), and we're off, with Alexander fantasizing about moving to Australia, as far from home as he can envision, as he bumps up against one disappointment after the next.

What's such fun here is the cartoon aspect of the characters. They're never overdone, but particularly appropriate in the case of the adult roles in the show, all played by Meredith Ott and the wonderful, gangly Timothy Strauhal. Ott's mom character is relentlessly cheerful, never seeming to hear Alexander's complaints, even when he goes with his brothers to the shoe store, and they don't have anything he wants in his size (Strauhal is delightful as the unctuous, dancing shoe salesman in sparkly red footwear). Parents don't often have time to listen to everyone when there are three kids in the family and lots to get done during a busy day.

The young supporting actors have plenty to do, and they don't miss a beat. As well as playing Alexander's friends and classmates, they portray several inanimate objects in his house. NWCT's new resident costumer Shana Targosz dons them in matching get-ups that brighten the stage, and creates some fun, quirky outfits for the adult figures.

Lucas Welsh, a former actor with the company, directs with imagination and intelligence, keeping the action light and bright, and using the cluster of box-like modules designed by Jeff Seats on stage inventively. Choreographer Elizabeth Gibbs, also a former NWCT pupil and actor, uses the modules well, too, and does great work throughout, including the upbeat dance in the shoe shop, and particularly Alexander's movement in the opening scene, where he's progressing precariously across the modules, teetering one minute, jumping bravely the next. It's a winning opening segment, symbolizing how we move through life, whether we're little or grown up. The show runs an hour and 15 minutes with one intermission, and is appropriate for kids 5 and up.

‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’

October 5, 2010
Metro Parent Online

The Experience: Alexander might be having a bad day, but the audience is having a blast, as Northwest Children’s Theater kicks off its 2010-2011 season. Judith Viorst wrote the lyrics for this musical based on her picture book of the same name, and it’s filled with catchy tunes that will have you singing along.

Alexander is truly having a bad day, starting from the moment he wakes up and finds his gum stuck to his hair. Things go from bad to worse – the art teacher doesn’t appreciate his “drawing” of an invisible castle, he discovers he’s no longer his best friend’s best and when he goes to the dentist after school, he finds he has a cavity – while, of course, his older brothers have none.

“It’s just like real life,“ says Ethel, my friend’s 9-year-old daughter and my theater companion this afternoon.

Ethel, who has been in some plays herself, and I both agree that the acting is superb. The older brothers are merciless, the classmates perfectly exasperated, and the teacher (played by the same actress who plays Alexander’s mom) utterly kooky.

Thank goodness Alexander’s day ends on a high note. In a final scene that actually has this mother feeling teary, Alexander’s mother says to him, “I can’t promise you, but I think that tomorrow will be a better day.”

For any kid – or adult, for that matter – who has ever had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, “Alexander” is a sure antidote 

Inside information: Saturdays are Saint Cupcake Days”. During intermission, several different flavors of mini-cupcakes are sold for $1 each – the perfect treat for little appetites.

The 411
 Recommended for ages 5 – 10.
Show times: Saturdays and Sundays at noon and 4 p.m. through October 24. The play’s running time of one hour and 15 minute includes an intermission.
Cost: Adult tickets are $22, youth tickets are $18. Save big by buying season subscriptions!
Location: 1819 N.W. Everett St.
Contact information: 503-222-4480,


Theater review: ‘Madeline and the Gypsies’ delights, then and now

May 1, 2010
Holly Johnson, Special to The Oregonian

“In an old house in Paris that is covered in vines, live 12 little girls in two straight lines.”

So begins the Madeline stories in rhyming couplet by Ludwig Bemelmans, one of which has been made into a gentle children’s musical called “Madeline and the Gypsies,” currently at the Northwest Children’s Theater.

The life of tightly organized living in Madeline’s French boarding school comes to a halt when the gypsy circus rolls into town. Even Miss Clavel (sweetly portrayed by Judy Straalsund), the nun who keeps the girls in their lines like a benevolent sheepdog, can’t stop red-haired Madeline (the delightful Madison Wray) from running away with the circus, her naughty Spanish pal Peptio (Mac Larsen) in tow.

Barry Kornhauser’s stage adaptation of the story, combined with appealing music by Michael Koerner, suits the company, with its lion’s share of little girl roles. In fact, the girls in the boarding school make a super chorus: Their numbers are the best of all, “Two Straight Lines” and “The Ferris Wheel Song” among them.

Then there’s the various circus folk that stir up the dust in Paris. These actors sparkle, including Jon Ellingson as a mute clown who pulled plenty of laughs from little ones in the audience opening night, Paul Susi as the circus strong man who cries easily, Sean Sele as a confused elephant and beautiful Genevieve Andersen as the flamboyant gypsy mama, who would happily keep Madeline with her in the circus forever. Andersen dives heartily into the role, swishing her colorful skirts and showing off her marvelous vocal range in songs such as “Listen to the Rhythm of the Gypsy Heart.”

There’s a satisfying balance between the two worlds, one of matching uniforms and warm beds under Miss Clavel’s care, the other of creative pandemonium and quick invention under the circus tent, particularly when the lion escapes, and Madeline and Pepito have to put on a lion’s suit and fill in for him.

Little girls don’t have to be afraid. They can be feisty, gutsy, curious and brave. That’s a message derived from Bemelmans’ Madeline books that first came out in 1939. At a time when princesses were popular in storybook settings, helpless creatures waiting to be rescued, Madeline was a role model for young girls eager to explore their own individuality and to speak their minds.

This is nothing new in the 21st century, of course, so Madeline is right at home here. Miss Clavel is never cross, but always relieved and happy to have Madeline home again after her adventures. This spunky little girl’s got the best of both worlds. C’est formidable.

Interesting notes on Bemelmans, whose Madeline books have spawned toys, games, dolls and even a film: He always considered himself more of an illustrator than a writer (Jeff Seats’ set designs reflect his quick-sketch “Madeline” illustrations), but later became a serious painter, with works on display in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museé National d’Art of Paris. He was also a screenwriter, novelist, muralist and non-fiction writer, contributing to The New Yorker, Vogue and other publications. He was born, not in France, but in Austria, living in New York most of his life.

“Madeline and the Gypsies” runs about an hour-and-a-half, including intermission. It’s suitable for kids five and up.

Theater review: At Northwest Children’s Theatre, kids emphatically stop Pigeon from driving the bus

March 21, 2010
Holly Johnson, Special to The Oregonian

Mo Willems’ popular kids’ book “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” so inspired the folks at Northwest Children’s Theater that they’ve fleshed it out into a zany, sparkling musical for kids three and up, with Latin-flavored music and lyrics by Ezra Weiss.)

Company artistic director Sarah Jane Hardy and resident actor John Ellingson adapted the picture book to the stage, making sure there’s plenty of interaction with kids in the audience. In fact, Hardy, a native Brit, took English pantomime traditions, and liberally mixed them into the show, so children are encouraged to shout out answers, the main repeated question being from Pigeon (Ellingson), Can I drive the bus?” And the answer, of course, is a resounding “no.”

A seemingly incongruous mix of Las Vegas style dance numbers and British panto actually work very well together as the story of Pigeon’s obsession spins out. When Pigeon sees a human bus driver (played by Erik James) with his vehicle (a wonderful cardboard cut-out), he goes nuts. And even though James tells the audience, “Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus while I’m gone,” as he leaves for his lunch break, wheeler-dealer Pigeon doesn’t want to take no for an answer (Sound like some little person that you know?).

The delightful visual world of Pigeon and his friends comes to life on stage in this premiere production through scenic design by Jeff Seats that includes a series of colorful panels behind which chorus members can exit and enter. Seats has also created a delightful oversized set piece of a crib for a scene from Pigeon’s point of view as a baby, with his sensible mom played by Genevieve Anderson. He’s designed a glittering façade for a quiz show where kids and their parents are invited to come up and participate. During an upbeat song called "Best Friends Forever,” three teeter-totters on stage help demonstrate the balancing act of friendship in pairs, which leaves poor Pigeon odd bird out.

One of the show’s highlights is a sequence where Ellingson sits in a chair and mimes Pigeon trying all the levers and buttons on a bus, complete with all the sound effects of doors closing, windshield wipers going, the horn beeping and more.

The opening number “Hey Can I Drive The Bus?” offers a flurry of Brazilian style bird costumes as chorus members pop in and out of the panels in feathery headdresses and colorful print and check costumes. This scene shows off some of the best work of costumer Mary Rochon, who does a marvelous job of creating colorful outfits that kids can relate to, and since the seven-member chorus, which includes Emily Bryan, Reed Sturtevant and Grover Hollway, have plenty of quick costume changes, Rochon has made the costumes interchangeable and multi-purpose, mostly human and partly bird.

The show runs 70 minutes with one intermission. Willems’ book was a New York Times best-seller and winner of three Caldecott awards. 

Fertile Ground review: Northwest Children’s Theater strikes gold with steampunk ‘Pinocchio’

January 30, 2010
Holly Johnson, Special to The Oregonian

Northwest Children’s Theater has triumphed gleamingly with its new musical adaptation of “Pinocchio,” the classic tale written in the 19th century by Carlo Collodi, who might recognize and approve of this version in the steampunk style (think “Mad Max,” “Delicatessen” or “The City of Lost Children”)

Envision a world of shiny copper and steel that reinvents modern machines using Victorian-age technology, a place where goggles, sprockets, steam engines, gyroscopes, hot-air balloons and other vintage gizmos abound. Collodi (1826-1890) would have felt right at home. Still, the play includes a few references to today’s technology that tech-savvy kids will catch 

Metal is the operative word, with music by long-time NWCT composer Rodolfo Ortega, book by Milo Mowery, and lyrics by both. Pinocchio (a brilliant performance by Lea Zawada) is not made of wood, but fashioned of gleaming gold metal, a relative of the Tin Woodman, perhaps.

Our boy toy was lovingly created by Geppetto (Alan H. King), who is not a shoemaker but an inventor, who also has made Crick (Matt Loehrke), a cricket-like windup toy whose main purpose is to follow Pinocchio around and keep him out of trouble. It’s no small task, as our toy boy is full of mischief, wide-eyed at seeing the world for the first time, but ready to dive in, with a minimum of good sense, and a hearty appetite for living.

The Blue Fairy (Julia Staben), the patron saint of inventors wearing a skirt decorated with lights, doesn’t bestow human life on Pinocchio: Instead, she gives him the gift of electricity.

Stromboli, the scary, overbearing villain in the 1940 Walt Disney film version, doesn’t appear here. Instead, the bad dude is Catjack (John Ellingson), a sleazy, smart-alecky thief (and a really bad magician), who hangs out with his henchman Foxtrot (a hilarious portrayal by Kerry Ryan).

Director Sarah Jane Hardy, who also choreographs, gives Catjack and the chorus a striking Bob Fosse-style dance number (“He’s a Thief”). The musical style changes dramatically in the second act, when a buoyant waltz explodes onstage in “The Only Thing a Boy Really Wants.”

Ortega’s use of different musical forms and his occasional touches of dissonance are inventive yet accessible. The show’s lyrics are delightfully contemporary (“Boring just won't cut it,” Pinocchio declares).

Zawada’s Pinocchio is giddy, mischievous, slightly off balance, eager for life and fun, fun, fun. Her face cleaves into a wide grin one moment, and the next it stares blankly at an incomprehensible world. Kevin Michael Moore in several roles also provides a star-quality performance: He uses his voice like a wide-scale instrument, his José Jiménez accent is hilarious, and as a nobleman with puffy hair and a pompous strut, he looks like one of the inmates in “Marat Sade.”

Learning from your mistakes, learning to listen and trusting what’s inside you are among the ideas the story offers youngsters. Whether you're a kid in the Victorian era or the 21st century, some life lessons don’t change.

Review: ‘Narnia’ faithfully retells the first book of C.S. Lewis’ series

Sunday, December 13, 2009
Excerpted from the review by Bob Hicks—Special to The Oregonian

“Narnia,” the latest musical play onstage at Northwest Children’s Theater and School, is based closely on “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the first book that C.S. Lewis wrote in his enduringly popular Narnia series of Christian-themed fantasies. With a very few elisions and modifications, the play—book by Jules Tasca, music by Thomas Tierney, lyrics by Ted Drachman—follows the action in the book closely. If it’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” you want, it’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” you’ll get in this production, which is directed and choreographed by Sarah Jane Hardy, Northwest Children’s Theater’s artistic director. No huge cuts, no authorial or directorial embellishments, no ironic winks, just an honest retelling for the stage of Lewis’ tale. And that’s no small accomplishment.

(Lucas) Welsh as Aslan…gives the production’s outstanding performance, and shows he know exactly what musical theater is all about. He’s precise and focused, his enunciation and projection are enviable, and although he’s not the physical heavyweight you might expect from Aslan, he amplifies his space on stage: This is not Aslan the terrible and wild, but Aslan the wise and youthful and brave, a young deity only just coming into his own, and Welsh’s clear tenor singing voice carries the day.

Other standouts in the cast include Patrick Moynihan as elder brother Peter, the picture-perfect English school lad; Hayley Rousselle as a spitfire Lucy; Kevin S. Martin as an expansive Father Christmas; Grover Hollway as the shaggy and timorous faun Mr. Tumnus, and Erik James in the dual lovable-crotchety roles of the old Professor and Mr. Beaver. Athena Patterson’s comically hotsy-totsy performance of the White Witch is a crowd-pleaser and seems in keeping with the naughty-diva songs the show provides her.

Now through January 4
Generally Fridays and Saturdays at 7 pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm

Visit for ticket prices and show times

Northwest Children’s Theater and School
At the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center
1819 NW Everett Street, Portland, OR 97209
Tickets: (503) 222-4480 or 

Review: ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is an ideal family outing

Sunday, October 4, 2009
by Holly Johnson—Special to The Oregonian

Whether or not your kids know the gentle stories and classic characters of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh,” they’re sure to enjoy the stage play of the same title with music by Allan Jay Friedman and book adaptation by Kristin Sergel. The short piece with occasional songs is specifically based on the Milne story “Pooh Goes Visiting,” introducing little ones to the characters of Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, Christopher Robin, Pooh and more.

Milne’s wit is very much alive in this Northwest Children’s Theater production about Pooh, the bear of very little brain and great appetite for honey. The easily distracted Pooh, nicely played by John Ellingson in plenty of padding, floats into the air with a blue balloon to get closer to a beehive in a tree, gets stuck in Rabbit’s doorway and joins his pals Eeyore and Owl to await the arrival of a newcomer, the much-feared Kanga, who has run away with his friend Piglet, and – horrors – given him a bath. Even Kanga’s offspring, Roo, attempts to get away from her, explore the Hundred Acre Wood and find some other folks to play with.

The cast is very fine, particularly Shannon Jones as the maternal, bossy Kanga and Natalie Hovee as the agile, fearless Roo. Annie Leonard is appropriately pompous as know-it-all Owl, who ironically can’t spell his own name, and Celeste Spangler creates a bouncy Piglet.

Barrett William Kent brings Christopher Robin to life in a brief though bright appearance as he shares the stage with the narrator, Tracy Ross, who also provides piano accompaniment to the songs (Alas, there is no Tigger in this story, a figure whom a number of the youngsters in Saturday’s audience were waiting for).

Jeff Seats’ painterly set is a real treasure, echoing the style of line drawings by original illustrator E.H. Shepard. Mary Rochon’s costumes work on various levels, as always, a mix of fanciful patterned fabric with soft pajama-like material that kids can relate to. If you’ve got a tiny member of the family who might be drawn to the stage, this is a great first-time show for him or her. The event has one intermission and runs about an hour and a half.

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