Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wanda's World, Zach Theatre Youth Production, January 31 - February 22

I attended this production a week ago. I had trouble writing about it, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about that. These kids are full of energy, and my gosh, there are plenty of them -- in this, the first non-professional production of Wanda's World, there are 29 cast members.

Bless them, they dance and sing their hearts out, and there is a goldmine of talent here. Director Jaclyn Loewenstein, judging by her brief pre-show appearance, is a talented, charismatic motivator who has magicked the very best out of this cast.

The show opens as a phone-in TV show, Wanda's World, in which the perky Wanda answers questions Dear Abby style from middle-schoolers about their uncertainties. I'm new, and why aren't my classmates in my new school nice to me? Wanda dispenses perky advice in easily-scanned memnonics, and the perky dance team behind her (Wanda's Dreamgirls) gyrates, sings and dances, and grins their sparkle grins.

And then with a musical and scenic modulation we realize that this is Wanda's hopeful imagining. She is about to confront the anxieties of a new school. To make things worse, she has a big purple birthmark on most of the right side of her face. You can bet that the other kids are gonna razz her and nickname her ("Blotches!"), while the earnest home room teacher and middle school principal will stand for fair play and friendliness.

Annie Longley (left) was Wanda at the Sunday show I attended and she was terrific. She appears in half the shows, trading off off with Sarah Nicols. Aline Mayagoitia as the wicked Barbie cheerleader delivered a cute, snide, self-important comic figure; this character is double cast, as well, with Sarah Halle for half the shows. Football hero Ty Belvedere is played by 7th grader Dillon Marrs throughout, and he's a competent white-bread hero with a pretty lengthy acting resume. As mischief-maker P.J. Dunbar, 7th grader Matthew Moore is saucy, bouncy, does a heckuva back flip and a pretty good break dance with his buds. Cameron Durden as Spangles the puppy is lovable and droll

I finally decided that scriptwriter Eric Weinberger and the composer/lyricist Beth Falcone were just speaking a language I knew little about. I lived largely outside the United States over the last 30 years and I have never, ever been plugged into television. This piece is a high energy, squeaky clean, simple minded retelling of the Ugly Duckling myth for the young TV generation. The school setting and the cardboard characters reminded me a bit of the Archie comic books.

Wanda's dream is to be accepted. She gets involved in the media program at Cheese Valley Middle School (no kidding), and her adept camera work opens the way to her own school-channel TV show when Popular Cheerleader Bad Girl Jenny Hightower pushes the boundaries just one time too many in her pursuit of Popular Football Hero Ty Dunbar and his candidacy for student council president. The turning point: Ty promises pizza for everybody every Friday, but Wanda clues him that some kids are lactose intolerant, so he should also provide soy-substitutes for the cheese on some of the pizzas.

I liked the two adults in the cast: José Villareal as the slightly gauche, kind-hearted stuttering middle school principal Mr. Lemmings, and Amy Nichols as the Scots-accented Ms. Dinglederry, Spanish teacher and mentor to our dear Wanda. Weinberger and Falcone give Nichols an unexpected hot-blooded Spanish number - - one of the oldest tricks in the musical comedy book and one that still works, especially with a naive audience.

This is an effective hothouse production, giving ambitious youngsters a sharp taste of the joys and victories of performance. Watching them strut their stuff is a pleasure.

Robert Faires' review in the Austin Chronicle of February 12: "
Their tale has a more personal feel [than Disney's High School Musical], as seen in the source of Wanda's self-consciousness and the show's delightfully quirky sense of humor."

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