REVIEW – Just So Stories – California Theatre Center

Having done theater as a child and having spent several years directing children’s plays, teaching youth theater classes and even writing a few children’s plays myself, I like to pop into a production for and/or by kids from time to time to see what audiences are being exposed to and what the production trends are. For years I witnessed Children’s Theatre with outdated stories told through scripts with unrelatedable language and presented in a style that gave its wee audience far too little credit. It also often times bored the parents to tears, which didn’t help fill the seats and raise the next generation of arts lovers/patrons. California Theatre Center has traditionally been one of the leading organizations in the Bay Area that provide children and adults alike a fresh, fun, relevant and polished family friendly theatre experience. Just so Stories, which opened this past Saturday, is just one of these productions.

This show was surprisingly cute and funny even to the childless adult/Princess in the house. The 4 adult cast does a fine job of keeping the stylized repetition at the core of the traditional Kipling stories innovative and comical. The inventiveness and speed of set and costume changes keep the pacing right on target too, with each transition done efficiently and creatively. Each is accompanied by lovely music and lighting that guides you out of the last scene and into the new story. The production values are simultaneously professional and simple with a nice balance between creative visuals and not relying too heavily on spectacle and effects to get the messages across.  Special bonus points for the whale in the third of four stories which was a particularly lovely visually I’d never seen done before.

This is a show that teaches its audience to listen (a GREAT life skill to be sure) as well as pay attention to the visual cues to it easily appeals to many ages. There are both subtle and quite pronounced multicultural elements (costuming, music, dance and language) to the stories which are fabulously colorful and present great post show dialogue starters on global cultures too. There’s plenty of committed physicality from the cast (not one of them phones it in ever) which helps define and transform each character nicely. There are identifiable themes to these classics tales too. I particularly enjoyed the 4th tale which has a child mentioning on many occasions that adults sometimes don’t understand her drawings. I appreciate that it didn’t dumb down or condescend to its smaller audience members, speaking to them not AT them. This is exactly the kind of theater that often sparks creativity of the on and off stage variety in its audience.

The show ran a little over and hour and started about 10 minutes late (and families shuffled in) so it seemed to try the patience right at the very end of the youngest audience members, but the audience otherwise seemed to be totally engaged.

Whether your first or fiftieth play, this is time well spent and it receives a respectable 4 1/2 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara. California Theatre Center’s Just So Stories plays at the Sunnyvale Community Center Theater on Saturdays only now through July 18th in rep (Thurs-Sun) with Harvey and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) — which play through July 26th and 24th respectively.

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