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 BoxOffice@Pinocchios.net.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

“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.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.

What’s to love during an Orlando vacation? The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show has your ticket.

Tony Brent performs The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show at WonderWorks.

 ORLANDO – So what is it that tourists want to do when they flock to Central Florida for the holidays? Decisions, decisions, Rich Miller said.

In addition to the theme parks, a really good dinner show is on the list, said the Philadelphia resident who is spending two weeks in the Orlando area with his girlfriend, Jennifer Schultz.

“I think we wanted to do this last year, but didn’t,” Miller said and he stood in line for The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show at WonderWorks. “There’s just so much to do down here. I think you have to do Disney first – that’s an unwritten law, I think, so we did that last year. We pack a lot in.”

Miller and Schultz have been coming to Orlando for years, and have taken in other dinner shows in this tourism Mecca – Capone’s, Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Show, Medieval Times, and so on. The Magic Comedy Dinner Show has been on their to-do list as well.

“It’s supposed to be one of the best shows,” Miller said, adding that he’s been a magic lover for decades.

“I always have been – all guy-kids are magic fans,” he said.

“I’m kind of just looking for a good show,” Schultz added. “I hope it will be something different.” 

Rich Miller and Jennifer Schultz left behind Philadelphia to spent two weeks in the Orlando area, and the Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show was on their list of must-see attractions.

On a cold, blustery night, a long line waited to get into the 6 o’clock dinner show, featuring the talents of Tony Brent. The row of tables inside the theater quickly filled up as an international crowd sat down for all-you-can-eat servings of salad, popcorn and pizza. Brent himself noted after the show that Florida residents tend to be vastly outnumbered by people from other parts of the country – and the world – in his audience this time of year.

“We get people from all over the world,” he said.

What brought them all to WonderWorks was a family-friendly show that combines fast magic tricks – how exactly does he take a dirty napkin and turn it into an egg? – with plenty of zippy one liners, including the opening when Brent asked the audience not to videotape any portion of the show, but added, “You’re welcome to draw a picture on your napkin.”

As Brent himself noted in the beginning, it’s a very “interactive show.”  He routinely selects members of the audience to get up on stage and help him do his thing – either a magic trick or some more comedy.  There’s plenty of improvising with each show, such as the moment when a man from the audience got on stage and told Brent he was from Indiana. When Brent asked how the weather up there and the man responded that it was cold, Brent added, “Really? Good thing you came to Florida,” to huge laughs.

The members of the audience selected to participate in the show, as it turned out, including Schultz, who had to yell out “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” while holding a red sack. By the end of the performance, audience members young and old alike were lining up for Brent’s autograph. The high praise included kind words from Schultz, who told Brent “It was such a great show,” and Miller, who added, “Amazing stuff – amazing.”

It was another reminder of why Central Florida remains one of the top tourist destinations in the world – and why people who have already been to the Orlando area many times just keep coming back.

Shazam! Tony Brent brings Jennifer Schultz on stage as part of the show.

Who is the man who packs them into the WonderWorks show? Brent has been doing the Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show since 2000, and got his start at age 12, when he discovered a passion for both magic tricks and one-liners.

“I had an ad in the local newspaper when I was 12, doing birthday parties,” he said. “I was industrious.”

The native of Holiday, Tenn., relocated to Orlando in 1999, originally to work for Walt Disney World, before gravitating to WonderWorks.

“I’ve been doing it full time for 16 years,”  he said. “And part time before that.”

So how do you effectively combine magic and comedy into one show?

“I just know what works for me,” Brent said. “I try to be similar to the movie ‘Shrek,’ that has something for everybody in it.”

The audience lined up for DVD copies of Tony Brent's show.

That includes double entendres that sometimes fly over the heads of the kids – but the adults laugh out loud.

“The kids don’t always get what I’m doing, but the parents get it,” said Brent, whose show includes skits about hippies, Sonny and Cher and ancient Egypt.

“I try to keep it very fast-paced,” he said. “Most guys drag the tricks out, but here since it’s a dinner show, you’ve got to keep their attention.”

How does he go about selecting people from the audience and figure out who will be an asset on stage?

“I certainly look for people who are smiling and seem to be enjoying the show,” Brent said. “My show is really light-hearted. It’s not a serious magic show. I look at it like a party with magic in it.”

He also makes a point of not trying to embarrass anyone he brings on stage, but to toss them right into the fun.

“I try to do it the way I would want to be treated,” he said.

He also likes to mix it up with the audience, which gives Brent plenty of opportunity to think up new jokes for each performance.

“Every show is different,” he said. “I keep it loose enough so I can improvise.”

The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show is performed nightly at 6 and 8 p.m. For reservations, call 407-351-8800.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...