There's nothing like the words children's theater to cast a parent into the slough of despond. You think cheesy sets and costumes, simpleminded scripts, hambone acting. You think hackneyed stories and desperate attempts to tap into trends of the moment: Paul Bunyan meets Pokémon, a hip-hop Christmas Carol. Is it any wonder that many children's theaters prefer to call their medium "theater for young audiences"?
Call it what you will, but the much-maligned art form has taken on a new and startling level of sophistication. "No blue or pink plaid on our stage. No bad synthesizer music. No fake furry animal costumes," specified Linda Hartzell in her guidelines for the Seattle Children's Theatre, where she has been the artistic directorfor 15 years. The theater marked its 25th anniversary last season with a new production, When I Grow Up, I'm Gonna Get Some Big Words, based on the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and children involved in the civil-rights marches. Of late we've also had The Great Gilly Hopkins, adapted from the novel about a troubled girl in and out of foster homes—a big success for Louisville's Stage One. At Childsplay, in Tempe, Arizona, David Saar's Yellow Boat celebrated the life of the author's son, a hemophiliac who died of AIDS at age seven. And Belgian director Jo Roet has staged his adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac in Seattle, Honolulu, and New York, starring three different actors, none of whom sports a big nose.
It's not really surprising that children's theater has caught up with its audience, surely the most media-savvy generation in history. More to the point, as Peter Brosius of the Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company says, "these are people who are going through the most wrenchingly emotional stage of their lives."
Not that the new kids' theater is all stripped-down classics and dire issues. There's plenty of sheer showbiz, too—like the multimedia spectacle of Starry Messenger, Minneapolis's extravaganza about Galileo. Children's theater, unlike the adult version, is a growth industry; there's a demand for it, and the best-endowed theaters can afford to develop productions over time. It takes more than money to do all that, of course; it takes expertise, continuity, physical resources. And so Stage One, Seattle Children's Theatre, Childsplay, and Children's Theatre Company, among others, maintain resident acting companies, along with wardrobe, scenery, and prop shops.
Some of the very best children's theater can be found on a crossroads once synonymous with distinctly adult entertainment: 42nd Street in New York's Times Square. The New Victory, built in 1900, is Broadway's oldest functioning theater and the only one devoted exclusively to "youth and family audiences."(The Lion King, which helped set off the renaissance, is playing across the street at the New Amsterdam Theater.)
The New Vic's role is just the latest on a lengthy résumé. Lionel Barrymore, Tyrone Power, and Lillian Gish once trod its boards. In the seventies it was the first XXX-rated cinema on its block. It was restored and reopened in 1995 by the New 42nd Street Inc., the nonprofit charged with the revitalization of the street's historic theaters. The New Victory's Venetian façade and double staircase create an appropriately majestic entrance to an interior with the filigreed plasterwork, domed ceiling, and brocade upholstery of another era.
What you see onstage, however, is anything but old-fashioned. The New Vic presents 12 to 14 productions a year, drawn from around the world. Recent seasons have featured Julie Taymor's The Green Bird, Grimm's Tales from London's Young Vic Theater Company, and, from New Jersey, Crossroads Theater's It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues (which went on to Broadway and a Tony nomination). Among the New Victory's offerings this season are the Peking Acrobats, Batoto Yetu's African folk tales, Ping Chong & Co.'s puppet-theater piece Kwaidan, and the Dutch dance troupe Introdans. Small wonder that audiences—an unusually downtown crowd, with the occasional celebrity parent—almost always include unaccompanied adults, just there to see the show.
Surprisingly, considering its reasonable ticket prices (from $10) and solid subscription base, the New Vic is something of a secret. With an advance call or a same-day visit to the box office, you can almost always get tickets. So the next time you're hankering for New York theater and find yourself faced with big-budget revivals and overhyped tourist traps (not to mention furry animal costumes), look to the least likely place for great family theater: a great family theater.