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.

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