`Toyland' Has Gift Of Youth
By Leonard Hughes
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 25, 1997; Page M07
The 15-year-old Fort Washington company, which specializes in flashy musicals, planned a straight production of Victor Herbert's classic operetta, but when director and founder Charla Marcum Rowe assembled her young cast, she decided to scrap the old script in favor of one that's more compatible with children of the '90s.
The result is a show she calls "Babes in Toyland, Really," in reference to some two dozen performers, ages 5 to 14, who carry the show with support from a handful of adult cast members. The adults happily find themselves upstaged by their young colleagues in a production that comes off remarkably polished and thoroughly entertaining.
Somehow, Rowe and assistant director Anne Janeski have created an atmosphere that lets children be spontaneous without losing control. The performance is well-timed and disciplined, but it ultimately works so well because the cast appears to be having a great time in the spotlight.
The story is loosely based on the original, with overtones of other shows (especially "Into the Woods" and "The Wizard of Oz"). Average preteen student Jack Horner, suffering from lack of motivation, is propelled into a dream world in which he meets classic fairy-tale characters who help him grow through a variety of tasks.
A few tunes from the original score have been retained (including the famous "Toyland"), and a slew of others have been borrowed from other musicals and cleverly worked into the script.
The set, designed by David Warren, is a workable and simple array of rectangular flats wrapped to look like huge Christmas presents.
But delightful costumes by Sandy Jensen and Susan Wallace are what help the children steal the show as dancing fairies with cardboard wings or a garden of flowers with colorful cloth petals.
Musically, the most impressive performances are the ensemble pieces, including "Hail to Toyland" and the "Toyland" finale. Rowe's well-tuned piano is the only instrumental accompaniment, but it's quite effective, combined with creative dance steps choreographed by Chiqui Gonzales and singing directed by Mel Adkins (who plays a crowd-pleasing Old King Cole).
Geary Cox, an eighth-grader from Mechanicsville, is the undisputed star as Jack Horner, with a facetious grin and a powerful singing voice.
The evening's biggest show-stopper on opening night Friday was a burlesque performance of "A Friend Like Me" (from the cartoon movie "Aladdin") by Cory Hawkins in an outlandish costume as a trouble-making snake.
Cory brought down the house, most of whose 200 seats were filled with people who looked as happy as kids on Christmas.
"Babes in Toyland, Really" continues at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the John Addison Concert Hall, Harmony Hall Regional Center, 10701 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington. Tickets are $10; $8 for students and seniors; and $6 for ages 12 and younger. Call 301-292-2839 for reservations.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company