Pictured (l-r): Callie Rodina, Sarah LaBarr, Lily Nicholas, and Jacob Valle. Photo by J. Robert Schraeder.
By Abigail Trabue
One of my first shows right out of college was working with a children’s theater company in Chicago on a new musical adaptation of CINDERELLA. I was young, excited to be in the professional theater scene and completely unprepared for the power that is 300+ children in a theater hanging on your every word. It was a wild ride, and one that taught me how to be quick on my feet and just roll with it, it also prepared me for the fine art of parent/child negotiations.
Think about it, in children’s theater you are trying to remember 100 things at once while appearing to be “in the moment,” all while interacting with a large group of energetic and opinionated kids, whose ideas you are attempting to use inside a larger dialogue, and in order to do that you have to be quick on your feet, know what is happening all around you, and really only reveal enough information to keep everyone satisfied long enough to get stuff done. You really have to be on your A-game, because kids are smart, and they can turn on a dime. And while my days working in children’s theater are no more, I do like to think every time I try to leave the house with my three boys I’m performing my own solo piece.
And with all that in mind, I, along with my family, headed to Crown Center over the weekend to take in the opening night of “GOOSEBUMPS: The Phantom of the Auditorium – The Musical” at the Coterie Theatre, a not-so-spooky all-ages production based on the beloved series by R. L. Stine.
Over the next 65 minutes, we meet a group of middle school kids who want to be in the school musical, “The Phantom,” a script which is said to be haunted and was attempted, but unsuccessfully produced, many many years ago by the now drama teacher’s great-great-grandmother. At the center of all the action are Zeke (Jacob Valle) and Brooke (Callie Rodina), two best friends desperate to play the leads opposite each other.
Under the direction of Producing Artistic Director Jeff Church, ensemble members Valle, Rodina, Sarah LaBarr, Lily Nicholas, David LeVota, and Evan J. Lovelace strike just the right balance of spooky and fun. Through their reactions to the environment and to each other, they make it clear the kids are safe, and that being frightened can be thrilling. They keep the energy light and joyful and immediately establish the theatrical elements being used to create spooky effects on stage. It’s a much-appreciated level of content awareness, and Church, along with the ensemble, has taken great care to ensure this all-ages production is accessible to children across all level of sensory sensitivities. Only once did my young five-year-old bury his head in my shoulder at the presence of the Phantom, and even then he recovered quickly thanks to the reaction of the actors. While the story had enough going on to keep my 10, 7 and 5-year-olds mostly engaged, it did feel about 10 minutes too long, especially towards the end.
The Coterie continues to move children’s theater forward and respect this vital art form. They understand the impact of representation on stage, and what that kind of representation can do for children in the audience. They continue to pick work that brings kids and adults together, that challenges our way of thinking and gives a voice to underrepresented communities and individuals. And GOOSEBUMPS is no exception. It’s great fun, it offers kids a chance to enjoy being scared without any real sense of danger, and for those who have made a living working in theater, Tina’s role in the school production will have you laughing and shaking your head at the all-to-familiar realism of the situation.
“GOOSEBUMPS: The Phantom of the Auditorium – The Musical” runs through August 5th. For more information visit thecoterie.org.