By Judith Cookis Rubens
Toddlers and preschoolers aren’t exactly a sit-still bunch, and expecting rapt attention at the theater is asking a lot.
So it’s nice when a children’s show provides ample opportunity for kids to move their bodies and interact with performers to feel part of the action.
Farmers Alley Theatre’s children’s series now presents “The Tiger Who Came to Tea,” giving kids the chance to stretch, meow, and sing with a hungry striped tiger who disrupts one British family’s tea time. This tiger has a “Cat in the Hat”-like enthusiasm for mess-making, and, of course, eating. Audience participation is expected and even encouraged in many parts.
Aimed at ages 4 and up, it’s probably best suited for the preschool/kindergarten set, who eat up the actors’ pratfalls and tiger’s silly pantomimed shenanigans.
The story follows young Sophie and her Mummy, who spend an awful lot of time in the family kitchen – lunching, sipping tea, helping harried Daddy off to work, and greeting the occasional mailman or milkman.
This afternoon, after a quick lesson on counting and telling time, there’s a final mysterious doorbell. The arrival of a big sly cat has the kiddos groaning and pointing, as he playfully hides from mom and daughter. The giggly excitement on these young faces as they earnestly try to point him out could put a smile on even the grouchiest critic.
These curious young audiences grin as the wild cat devours every last morsel of food and drop of liquid in the tidy kitchen. With a bit of theater magic and some quick paws, the tiger manages to clear the full table, plates and all, leaving kids (and parents?) marveling “how’d he do that?” Slightly older kiddos might ponder “where exactly did it go?” or “that cake wasn’t real,” as my kindergarten charges soberly agreed on the way home.
An energetic trio of actors tries hard with David Wood’s rather thin script, even managing to ad lib a few asides that will give adults a few chuckles. Bannon Backhus (a member of Kalamazoo’s Crawlspace Eviction improv group) does the tiger’s share of the lifting, playing not only the tiger, but Dad, and all the other visitors. His bumbling Dad – a man who’s so out-of-it in the morning he tries to toast his shoes – is the funniest, followed by the silly milkman. Fellow improv actress Tara Sytsma keeps things on track as Mummy and leads the audience through the interactive parts.
Bailey Ford as young Sophie has endearing energy and sweet vocals.
Though it didn’t seem to bother these wide-eyed youngsters, the early big buildup to the tiger’s entrance feels overly stretched. And again, toward the end, a playful, interactive ditty about sausages, chips and ice cream goes on too long.
Surely, the interactive harmonizing is one way of slowly whetting young appetites for musical theater. However, for today’s tots, raised on Disney’s big budget spectaculars, a few more full-bodied song-and-dance numbers wouldn’t have hurt – and may only have upped – this production.
W. Douglas Blickle’s compact kitchen set makes the most of every nook and cranny, while warm lighting by Carrie Phillips helps brings things to a cozy close.
‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’
Farmers Alley Theatre
221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo
11 a.m. & 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8
2 p.m. & 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2, 9
45 minutes; no intermission