The Stray's the Thing

Take a Sad Song and Make It Better: Karl Baker Olson in the Children's Theatre Company's Peter Pan.

Peter Pan
Children's Theatre Company
Orphan Train

Great American History Theatre

BEING AN ORPHAN isn't much fun. All of those abandonment issues and nagging questions of biology, not to mention bad food and hygiene--why, it's enough to make you break out into...song.

Which may or may not explain the surprising appeal of two orphan-themed musicals that opened in the Twin Cities last week: Peter Pan at Children's Theatre Company and Orphan Train at the Great American History Theatre. If you had asked me two weeks ago whether there were enough decent child actor/singers in town to cast two full-blown song-and-spectacle showcases, I would have laughed and sent you on your way to Neverland. Now, I would simply advise you to go see for yourself.

Peter Pan is a world-premiere effort written and composed by longtime CTC collaborators Timothy Mason and Hiram Titus, whose 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins will cap off the season. CTC's new artistic director Peter Brosius inherited this year's season, so it's too early to tell what changes he'll bring. It may also be the reason why Peter Pan seems such a typical production for the company: That is, it's full of amazing production values and merely adequate everything else, except for a few dazzling moments of pure CTC magic.

Peter Pan and friends have to fly, of course: You don't get to Neverland on foot. And fortunately, making people fly is one of the things CTC does best. In fact, they do it so well here that when Peter, Wendy, Michael, and little brother Nana are thinking their happy thoughts and hovering in midair all at once, the big technical question becomes not how they hoisted all those kids 20 feet in the air but how they keep from getting their wires crossed.

Once Peter and Wendy and the gang have been safely transported to Neverland, the CTC design shop takes over. And from the Lost Boys' giant-mushroom jungle lair to the deck of Captain Hook's pirate ship--not to mention Hook's nemesis, the giant alligator--the eye candy never stops coming. If only Mason and Titus's material could match the brilliance of Campbell Baird's set design, CTC would really have something.

Unfortunately, most of the songs are fairly innocuous and often prove a bit too challenging for the youngsters who are called upon to sing them. If the music were dropped altogether, the production wouldn't lose much, for the heart and spirit of the play reside in Karl Baker Olson's impish portrayal of Peter Pan and David Cabot's cartoonishly diabolical Captain Hook. Together, these two save Peter Pan from its songs and keep one of the most enchanting rivalries in children's literature alive for yet another season.

The orphans over at the Great American History Theatre may not be having as much fun, but they are putting on a more impressive show. Written by Patty Lynch, with music and lyrics by Charlie Maguire, Orphan Train recounts the turn-of-the-century journey of thousands of New York City orphans who were redistributed to the rest of the country via the so-called "orphan trains."

Lynch's script provides just enough historical context to get the train rolling, then wisely abandons history to focus on the lives of a few select orphans while delivering some old-fashioned and compelling drama. Most of the orphans find benevolent caretakers, and their stories are told in a variety of heartwarming ways, but Orphan Train remains riveting largely because it doesn't shy away from the abuse suffered by some of these kids.

The unluckiest of the bunch is Aloysius (played by John Riedlinger), a high-spirited, street-tough Irish adolescent who gets chosen as the pet project of deputy sheriff Andy Hawkins (Terry Hempleman), a sadist who gets his kicks out of breaking both people and ponies, in that order. Hempleman has played so many malevolent drunks in the past couple of years that he's practically raised it to an art. The actor is in top form here, and amid his character's escalating battle of wills with the scrappy Aloysius, it's not hard to guess that catastrophe awaits just around the bend.

Unlike the songs in Peter Pan, Orphan Train's tunes are well-crafted anthems of the orphan experience, choreographed with skill and sung with passion (and on key, no less!). At times, there are as many as 25 or 30 people belting it out onstage, and by sheer force of numbers they're able to reach some rousing, Broadway-quality crescendos. The cast is also blessed to include J. Nathan Thomas's awesomely deep baritone. When Thomas digs into those railroad blues, his voice feels like a sledgehammer to the soul, and all you want to do is keep riding that train to the end of the line.

Peter Pan continues at the Children's Theatre through January 2; call 874-0400.Orphan Train continues at the Great American History Theatre through December 28; call 292-4323.

 
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