FAMILY SHOWS: The Tinderbox and Cinderalla: Review by Amy Wall Lerman, Editor-in-Chief, Baby Bloomer
There are hidden gems all over New York City – from the little metal monkeys adorning the ironwork outside the restrooms in Riverside Park, to the one-mile nature park that runs along the abandoned elevated railway line on the lower west side, known now as the “Highline.”
This weekend my husband and I found one of New York’s hidden gems when we took our six-year-old son, and his friend, to a show at the West End Theater on 86th Street on Manhattan’s upper west side. If you’re looking for the lighted billboards of Times Square, or even an awning with some plastic letters telling you where you are – don’t. The Frog and Peach Theatre Company, best known for its production of Shakespearean plays, is housed within an older building which is also home to an active Methodist church. It’s a spot easily missed if you’re actually looking for their recent fall children’s production. You have to look pretty closely at their billboard to notice the advertisement for their fairy tale series, Tinkerbell Theatre, and their adapted stage versions of Hans Christian Anderson’s, The Tinderbox, and Cinderella by The Brothers Grimm.
We arrived early and wandered the halls of the building for a minute or two while seeking the restroom and later, the theater. We walked the marble steps holding onto the sturdy wooden handrails passing a tiny doorway that led to a church where parishioners were waiting for a morning service. This same old world staircase led us to the second floor where we found a small theater with a cathedral ceiling and a floor level stage all prepped for fairy tale magic.
The shows were introduced by their Writer/Director, Lynnea Benson, who is also the Artistic Director and Co-founder of the Frog and Peach Theatre Company. Thanks to a director, and group of performers who are perhaps more comfortable with Hamlet than Tinkerbell, these two shows retained a sense of humor that would have had Shakespeare himself amused and entertained.
While the actors captivated the children in the audience with their portrayals of a soldier, a witch, and three rambunctious dogs in The Tinderbox as well as a wicked step-mother (in drag) and a handsome prince in Cinderella, the puppetry was an added treat reminiscent of the old-fashioned muppet fairy tale made-for-TV movies like The Frog Prince. But, the standout by far, was the non-stereotypical characterization of the princesses in both shows played by Kalie Birnbaum. With her sparkling stage presence and lovely singing voice, she easily stole the shows and grabbed the attention of her young audiences with the grace of a professional.
Aside from the amusing puppets that appeared as characters throughout the show, this is barebones theater in the raw: no fancy set design, basic lighting, limited costumes and music except for a guitar that pops in as the sole instrumental as Cinderella pines for love and a better life. This is the kind of theater where, if you can’t perform and grab the attention of small children with the strength of your story and ability to act, you better throw in the towel and call it a day. The Frog and Peach Theatre Company delivered what they promised, Rocky and Bullwinkle style fairy tale humor and cast that lived up to the expectations of the under 10 crowd and a handful of adults. It was entertaining from the beginning, where a colorful hand puppet appeared and disappeared at various points before the shows began causing the children to point and shout with laughter, to the end when the cast mingled with the audience and Prince Dreamboat knighted a couple of little boys. Between the two shows, the children were invited to interact with the puppets and cast and to make their own sock puppets to take home as souvenirs.
An observation from my experience with children’s theater – a little more audience participation would go along way with a group so young. Asking questions of the audience and playing off their responses is something children particularly enjoy and something adults cherish. Perhaps they could have invited children to dance on stage during the “Three Day Ball” or had a little girl from the audience try on Cinderella’s slipper.
And here’s my one and only gripe: it’s New Yorkers themselves and the lack of an audience at the shows today. Here is one of the hidden gems in a city of millions. A blip on the theatrical radar screen that is well-worth some attention. Children’s theater delights children in ways that not even books and movies can. It sparks imagination and a desire for self-expression. You don’t have to take them to a Broadway Show for that. At the price of just $12 if you purchase online and $15 at the door, here is an opportunity to support a small theater and give one of the greatest gifts you can to your child. There is so much at your fingertips, New York, you just have to go out and find it.
The Frog and Peach Theatre Company’s, Tinkerbell Theatre, made its debut in 2009 and has since had several return engagements. This season’s production of The Tinderbox and Cinderella will run until November 10th. Tickets can be purchased online at www.smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444. Tickets for the performances can be bought separately. The shows begin at 11:30a and 12:30p on Saturdays and Sundays. Each show runs 45 minutes. All shows are followed by a puppet making workshop.
For more information: www.jsnyc.com/season/F&P_Hamlet.htm