There's something liberating about watching a great piece of children's theater, even if you have no child of your own to bring along.
The cast seems somehow more daring and fearless of mistakes. Dance sequences and songs seem more heartfelt and soulful. Without the exacting and often unforgiving eye of grown-ups to keep themes in line and details on schedule, the production sails along as if by magic. And it's all because the spirit of childhood pushes it effortlessly along.
The key word is "seems." For as Salt Lake Acting Company proves with its fourth annual go at children's theater, the key to a great production is achieving through weeks of hard work the illusion that no one ever broke a sweat.
Of course, the story's far more light-hearted than the cement shoes of a script by Eugene O'Neill or Henrik Ibsen. In the case of "Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type," the story is perhaps even more feather-light than the frivolity of Noel Coward's "Private Lives." The fact that James E. Grote and composer George Howe's adaptation of Doreen Cronin's award-winning children's book retains its political core is all the more remarkable.
Cronin's story of animals' struggle with Farmer Brown for better working conditions borrows some basic inspiration from George Orwell's Animal Farm, a source the stage adaptation cites almost directly, but without that political fable's fatal warning of an ending. Instead, it's a win-win story made palatable by the basic decency of all the characters involved, but only after a little push and shove brings reason to the table.
The set-up is simple. Farmer Brown's barn is too cold, and the cows who provide him milk, along with one hen laying eggs, won't produce dairy product until they get electric blankets in return. A duck serves as both storyteller and intermediary between the two parties. The ever capable and always entertaining Austin Archer, a mainstay of SLAC casts, turns the duck's billing into a kind of spotlight role. Dressed in orange baseball cap, yellow stockings and white overalls, he's a spry force armed with a remote control that moves the story forward and back.
Shelby Andersen and Camille Van Wagoner play the cows. Andersen is the fiery radical against Van Wagoner's appeal to results through pragmatism. Whenever the spirit of bovine rebellion curdles too thick, Kalyn West as hen disperses everyone's energy merrily along. The central discovery, courtesy of duck, is a typewriter used by the animals to communicate the conditions of their demands. The device is merely a means to the end of effective negotiation.
Jazzy musical numbers are graced with accompanying stage images guaranteed to crack a smile, from flight goggles sported by a cast of seagulls, a disco-ball paean to electric blankets, and a rousing melody that throws the kitchen sink at Les Misérables references.
Even the wordplay hits on all cylinders as duck, the cows and hen drag Farmer Brown to the negotiating table via typed messages. "Whoever heard of a chicken with goose bumps?" asks West as hen. "It's silly!"
Adults almost invariably hedge their reactions. Children, bless their hearts, have the honesty to laugh out loud. "Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type" pops the champagne cork on that effervescent spirit that lets people of all ages laugh as they please. The experience is so refreshing, in fact, that childless uncles and aunts would be foolish not to seek out their nearest niece or nephew and score tickets.
Review: Type-casting cows
Salt Lake Acting Company presents a musical adaptation of the children's book Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type.
The bottom line • A jubilant, charming slice of children's theater that's half social commentary, half song-and-dance and one whole lot of fun.
When • Reviewed Friday, Dec. 14; continues through Jan. 5; Saturday-Sunday, Dec. 15-16, noon and 3 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 21, 7 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 22, 10 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 23, noon and 3 p.m.; Thursday, Dec. 27, noon and 3 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 28, noon and 3 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 29, 10 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 30, noon and 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Friday, Jan. 2-4, noon and 3 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 5, 10 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $10-$25. Call 801-363-7522 or visit www.saltlakeactingcompany.org