Can a play be too good?
It takes a special gift to ferret out that calibrated distinction.
Fortunately – or otherwise – I have that gift.
We’re talking about kids’ shows. One of which I was invited to see along with grandchildren Milo, 7, and Jack, 4.
I have a historical attachment to kids’ shows. I was in them at camp. (Later, writing a few myself.) “Being in shows” was a natural part of the summer’s itinerary. There was Swim Instruction, badminton, canoe trips and being in shows. It was just something you did.
The productions were generally “cut-down” versions of Broadway musicals. Finian’s Rainbow. (I played Finian.) Or Peter Pan. (I knocked their socks off as “Smee.”)
Everybody pitched in. A “Unit Head” usually directed. (Peter Pan was directed by Steve Lewis, who went on to become the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations. Apparently, the other candidates for the job had not directed a summer camp musical.) Counselors sewed the costumes. Others supervised campers, painting the sets. A counselor who could “really shake it” at “Socials” served as choreographer. A counselor with advanced piano training accompanied the production. (For Peter Pan, it was my future sister-in-law Nancy.)
Everyone who wanted to tried out. The most promising of us got the big parts, the rest, relegated to the “chorus.” We rehearsed for five days – with breaks for “Clean-Up” and “Rest Hour” –and we put on the show.
For me, shows were a salvaging experience. People seemed to like me in shows. And I liked to be liked. But that’s as far as it went. There was no “I have found my ‘True Calling!’” It was a transitory event. I felt the “rush of performance” and the validating applause. The next day, I got yelled at for dropping a fly ball in the outfield.
A kids’ show in Los Angeles.
The performers ranged from age 9 or 10, though the preponderance of them were older, some about to graduate High School, which was the “cut-off” point for participation in that theatrical company.
The difference between camp shows and the one I was now experiencing was startlingly dramatic.
Thesekids – and I mean all of them – were genuinely gifted.
The opening number delivered a troupe of precision tap dancers, executing steps originally choreographed (it says in the program) by legendary choreographer Gower Champion. The voices were vibrant, the lyrics, impeccably articulated, the acting, down to the smallest parts, well-timed and admirably credible. The “production values” were remarkable. The show’s costumes looked like they were borrowed from Broadway.
The production was impressively polished and skillfully performed. But to me, at least, it felt almost too polished. Less“interested amateurs putting on a show” than “Young Professionals-In-Training.” You could not imagine anyone tripping over their feet or blowing their lines. (Which not infrequently happened at camp.)
The sense that this was more than just “being in a show” is not surprising in a recognized show biz bastion like Los Angeles. “Surprising” would be an L.A. kid saying, “I don’t care if the odds are against me. I want to be a dairy farmer!”
A skim of the “Cast Bios” reveals a more than casual commitment to the theater. One 13 year-old – this was her tenth production. A 10 year-old – this was her seventh. One teenaged actor, her “bio” reports, has been in over 25 shows!
From the presented well-drilled precision, their intense participation went way beyond “extra-curricular activity.” This felt like “Show Business or Bust!” and I hope there’s an agent sitting in the audience.
Of course, I could easily be wrong about this, and the kids in this show had as much fun as we did performing at camp, but with more spectacular results. I just… I don’t know, it seemed like there was this suppressed “urgency” involved.
I once read a book entitled, There Are No Children Here, about growing up in a crime-riddled “housing project” in Chicago. In a different – way less serious context – I looked at that stage and felt exactly the same thing.
There were no children there.
And I missed them.