The ideal babysitter: “The Little Drummer Boy” charms young faces

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS – I’m always amazed at how well behaved children can sometimes be while watching live theater.

I’ve seen kids from local schools get bused into the spacious Orlando Repertory Theatre for a 90-minute show, and wondered how long their attention span will last — and whether at some point during the performance, I won’t be able to hear the actors anymore. Surprisingly, that’s never happened. For a generation growing up on rapid-paced, visually stunning video games, good theater – and the Rep truly has done some excellent shows – still manages to keep them entertained, happy — and quiet.

I was wondering the same thing on Sunday when I went to the Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater at the Altamonte Mall, which was performing a holiday favorite, “The Little Drummer Boy,” in what turned out to be a packed audience. That included quite a few young kids who sat up front on the floor below the stage. Although the show lasted just 40 minutes, was that too long to keep the young ones from getting antsy?

Even one of the puppet masters, Richard Hudnall, who introduced the show, had to remind the kids before the show started that “Today you’re in a live theater and that’s a little bit different than being at home in front of the TV or in the movies.”

Different, indeed. But there were no signs of kids looking bored, ready to go home. The tale of the little drummer boy who goes searching for his lost donkey in Bethlehem, before delivering a special gift to the baby Jesus, proven to be positively enchanting to the tiny faces in the audience.

Interestingly, puppetry appears to have been all the rage this year.  In October, the Orlando Puppet Festival at Loch Haven Park included original works like the Empty Spaces Theatre Co.’s “Phantasmagoria,” which recreated classic horror stories like “Frankenstein” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” through nearly life-sized puppets, which also revisiting the dark, violent comedy of a European-style Punch & Judy show.

Earlier this month, the Marke Sisters used marionettes in “Macabre Vignettes III: Snow,” a mix of modern dance, puppets and odd sculptures.
Those shows, however, represented marionettes for adults in pieces that were dark, disturbing and intricate – a reminder that not all puppet shows are designed solely for children.  Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater goes back to the more traditional concept of puppetry, though: the way marionettes can seem wonderfully spellbinding to children.

The theater got its start in May 1999, when a touring marionette company called Puppet Celebration, Inc. first started performing marionette shows across the region, in everything from elementary schools to libraries and civic auditoriums.

In 2002, the name was changed to Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater and it found a permanent home in the Orlando area before moving to the Altamonte Mall.  It’s been a fixture there ever since, drawing in crowds — young and old alike — for what may be the most unique and enjoyable children’s theater in this region.   

Marionettes welcome children from the front window of Pinocchio's Marionette Theater at the Altamonte Mall.

As the theater’s Web site notes, “The multiple goals of Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater have always been to help preserve the art and craft of marionette puppetry; to introduce children to live theater; and to teach theater etiquette.”

“The Little Drummer Boy” is an excellent example of the theater’s work, and why they manage to captivate small children. At times funny, certainly very sentimental, and by the end quite uplifting, this show gives us an ideal hero for the kids to relate to in Joshua, the boy who has lost his parents and now lives with his aging grandmother and their pet lamb and donkey.

When the donkey wanders off, Joshua sets out to find it, but arrives at the town of Bethlehem on a momentous day: the messiah is to be born that day.

Along the way, Joshua must fend off the rascally tricks of the Magnificent Barnibus, a scheming and greedy merchant who tries to entertain crowds by climbing atop his Trembling Tower of Trash.  When Joshua accidentally ruins his con – er, performance – it means war.

Along the way, the theater provides the audience with plenty to keep their attention: puppets that dance and juggle, moments that are sad and dramatic, others that prompted  even the adults to laugh out loud. It all comes to the final moments in the manger, when young Joshua discovers that doing good for someone else will ultimately be rewarding to him as well.

At the end of the show, the adults in the audience applauded, but the children did something different: they crowded around the stage, cheering, getting a closer look at the marionettes that had fascinated them for the past 40 minutes, then posing happily as their parents took multiple photos of them.

The theater is named after the classic wooden puppet, Pinocchio.

It’s hard to imagine a stronger and more impressive sign of approval from the kids. Their positive reactive to “The Little Drummer Boy” is no surprise, though, because this theater truly does understand what it takes to charm our youngest audiences, and it delivers for them handsomely.

“The Little Drummer Boy” continues tonight through Saturday, Jan. 1 at 10:30 a.m. and  12:30, 2:30 and 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 2 at 12:30, 2:30, and 4:30 p.m. Ticket are $5 for adults and children ages 2 and up. For reservations call 407-834-8757 or email

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Coffee lovers have their cafes, but what about those who savor tea instead?

ORLANDO — Everybody I know has their own favorite coffee shop. It’s their second home, the place I can always go to when I need to find them.
Coffee shops offer three great things — atmosphere (usually Bohemian), camaraderie, and, of course, superb coffee (if you know where to go to find it.) That’s why I know so many great coffee shops and have a hard time narrowing it down to one ultimate hangout. I’ve had so many great conversations, made so many great memories in these cafes.
It’s the drink that unites us.
Coffee is that universal drink that gives you a strong pick me up — in theory, anyway.  I still know a few people who insist they can drink 10 cups of coffee at night and go right to sleep.
I’m not one of them, which is why I tend to take in coffee shops in the morning. I’ve noticed, though, that the crowds tend to pick up much later — late afternoon into early evening.
it isn’t just that coffee shops are ideal places to get the best java. Coffee shops take on a life of their own, even as they expand their menus. The more Bohemian they are, the more you can expect two things: first, really good vegan plates, and second, special events being hosted there, including but not limited to poetry nights and even theatrical performances.
Now, what if you happen to like coffee, but you really, really much prefer tea?

Watch the tea brew at your table at Infusion Tea.

My advice: it would be hard not to imagine that we’d all find you comfortably settled in as a regular at Infusion Tea. This College Park institution is a dream come true for tea lovers, plus a exceptionally good spot for vegan meals and poetry nights.
Located at 1600 Edgewater Drive, Infusion Tea is the place to go where you can get in line and marvel at all the varieties of tea you have to choose from — not to mention taking you drink back to your table, then turning over the timer so it can brew for three to five minutes while you wait eagerly to savor it. The tea is always worth that wait, and there are jars of honey on every table calling out to you to make its way into the tea.  If coffee is the classic pick me up drink, tea may be the ideal relax-and-sip-it-slow drink.  Coffee winds you up … tea calms you down.
Infusion Tea is indeed a relaxing place, and there are really four spots inside this not very large cafe. You have the front counter, where you can order tea or sample some of Infusion Tea’s interesting and eclectic mix of meals.  

So many different flavors of tea to choose from at Infusion Tea ...


At that point, it would be hard not to imagine that we’d all find you comfortably settled in as a regular at Infusion Tea. This College park institution is a dream come true for tea lovers, plus a great spot for vegan meals and poetry nights.
Located at 1600 Edgewater Drive, Infusion Tea is the place to go so you can get in line and marvel at all the varieties of tea you get to choose from — not to mention taking you drink back to your table, then turning over the timer so it can brew for three to five minutes while you wait eagerly to savor it. The tea is always worth the wait, and there are jars of honey on every table waiting for you.  If coffee is the classic pick me up drink, tea may be the ideal relax and sip it slow drink.  Coffee winds you up, tea calms you down.
Infusion Tea is a relaxing place, and there really are about four spots inside this not very large cafe. You have the front counter, where you can order your tea or sample some of Infusion Tea’s interesting and eclectic mix of meals.  


There’s a vegan Gazpacho soup for $5.25, or a Raspberry Salad — organic field greens topped with candied walnuts, blue cheese crumbles, and dried cranberries, for $7.50. Another salad places roasted pears on greens, along with pecan crackers, for $8.
It wouldn’t be a true vegan spot without some whole wheat wraps ($8 each), including the Avocado Delight (organic avocado with hummus, sunflower seeds, tomato and spinich), or the Concorde (hummas, tabouleh, greens, sunflower seeds and balsamic glaze.)
Then you have the Tea Sandwiches — the Classic Cucumber ($7 for organic cucumber and cream cheese served tea-sandwich style) or the Sundried Special ($7.50, a sundried tomato spead). The Mediterranean Sandwich gives you spinach, roasted eggplant, pesto cream cheese and sundreid spread for $8.
How about Infusion Tea’s Platters, like the Gourmet Seasonal Fruit and Cheese plate ($9) with imported Irish Cheddar, Smoked Gouda and creamy Havarti served with fresh fruit and crostini? Or the Hummas, Pita and Veggies Vegan Platter ($6.75). Likewise, you get a choice of organic pizzas on multi-grain crusts for $8, including the MexiCali Pizza (refried beans and salsa topped with cheddar jack cheese, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, black olives, sour cream and cilantro) or the Goat Cheese Pizza (sundried tomatoes, goat cheese, mushrooms and pine nuts with fresh spinach.)  You may have arrived here looking for tea, but I suspect a lot of these meals are going to tempt you as well.

What to select from Infusion Tea's menu? The Mushroom Quesadilla is a good place to start.

There’s the section with the tables — be sure to get there early to grab one, because on some nights they fill up fast — and behind it, a gift shop. It’s operated by the Artistree Co-Op, offering locally grown art, jewelry and gifts. These are actually two separate businesses, but they operate under one roof.
And finally, near the window, you have an open microphone, where Infusion Tea hosts poetry nights and intersting Spoken Word events, bringing out artists, philosophers, writers and other Bohemian types for a stimulating talk. If the tea is really good, chances are it will be even more stimulating to experience.
I know of so many really good coffee shops that narrowing it down to one seems impossible — although the ones with the most interesting and eclectic blends of Joe always tend to win me over. Right now I can’t seem to resist Dunkin Donuts’ raspberry or coconut coffee.
But when it comes to great tea, I find it hard to top Infusion Tea’s mix of an appealing drink, interesting artwork to check out (or buy, which I have), tasty meals and inviting atmosphere, particularly on poetry nights.  Tea shops need not feel inferior to their friends operating coffee shops; this is one cafe that has quite a lot to offer.
To learn more about Infusion Tea, call 407-999-5255 or log on to To learn more about Artistree Co-Op, call 407-999-5251 or log on to

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“Dickens by Candlelight” is an enchanting theatrical experience.

ORLANDO – In his day, Charles Dickens would act out his classic short story “A Christmas Carol” in front of family, friends and other audiences, performing all the roles himself.

Considering how many characters there are in the saga of Scrooge and the ghosts that haunt him into an emotional reawakening, a theater could easily find a cast of more than 20 actors to tell the entire story.

And it might seem an odd choice to have just one actor play every role, even if, for example, the actor happens to be someone as talented as Orlando’s veteran actor/director John DiDonna, who seems more than capable of tackling Scrooge one second, Tiny Tim the next, and making both roles seem believable and engaging.

In “Dickens by Candlelight,” DiDonna plays Scrooge and a host of other roles, although he’s not alone on the stage, since he’s aided by actresses Morgan Russel and Monica Tamborello. Their goal is to bring Scrooge’s epic holiday journey to life in a way that seems fresh, invigorating, and funny. But with just three people alternating so many different characters and locations, does it work?

Before the show starts, the actors gather around a piano and lead the audience in singing Christmas carols.

As it turns out, quite magically.

To start with, Robin Olson’s adaptation of the Dickens holiday favorite has found the ideal location for this piece: the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Lake Ivanhoe. The renovated and restored home for the Orlando Ballet and the former Orlando Opera has a huge room ideally suited for this production, which dispenses with the traditional notion of audience members seated before a stage that the actors perform on. Instead, “Dickens by Candlelight” follows the much more engaging concept of having the audience seated at 10 tables decoratively set across the room, where pots of tea and plates of fresh cookies await them. There’s a huge and beautifully lit and decorated Christmas tree in the front entrance, and bows hanging in the windows. And, not surprisingly, there are lit candles on every table, and you’ll be thrilled at the moment when the room falls into total darkness – save for those candles, which give the room an enchanting feeling.

It gets better, though. When you first walk into the main hallway of the Performing Arts Center, you discover a grand piano that the actors stand next to as they lead the audience in singing several Christmas carols, before taking them into the theater. Everyone gets shown to their table, and they have a few minutes to meet the people seated with them. They can also use this time to pour some hot tea and enjoy the cookies awaiting them. If some holiday productions are just about seeing the show, “Dickens by Candlelight” goes a few steps further in making it a shared experience among audience and actors alike, a festive holiday event where we sing together, dine together, and experience together the glory of Scrooge’s newfound spirit of giving.

The three actors stay engaged with the audience even after the show has started, moving from table to table, talking occasionally to the people seated there, even inviting a few audience members to act out a scene with them. All the while the tea keeps flowing and the cookies keep disappearing, and DiDonna, Russel and Tamborello keep you fascinated with their energetic, electric command of the show.

Perhaps my favorite moment: there are bells at the every table, and at one point in the show, the audience is asked to ring those bells, filling the room with that happy sound. Waiting a few seconds for the bells to stop ringing, DiDonna paused, then added, “Not bad.”

As Scrooge, DiDonna takes a highly familiar character – a cynical, cold-hearted miser who despises the notion of employees being given a day off with pay once a year, just to celebrate a silly old holiday – and makes him seem both all too human and familiar, and at the same time larger than life. His journey of self-discovery and then rebirth is exciting, funny and, happily for the season, life-affirming.  

"Dickens by Candlelight" is magical.

This 90-minute production, performed without intermission, moves so briskly that you might be surprised at how quickly it goes by. And at the very least, if this doesn’t send you right into the mood and spirit of the season, check your pulse on the way out the door. “Dickens by Candlelight” is a happy reminder of why we love this time of year: the joy of being together, celebrating the things that make us feel like a little family, even for just one night.

“Dickens by Candlelight” will be performed tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at 1111 N. Orange Ave. in downtown Orlando. Tickets are $35 for general admission and $30 for seniors and students. For tickets, call 407-409-1619.

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