Yo to the Ho! Pirates rock in Penzance

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John Paul Gonzalez (far right) as Frederic proclaims his love and his loathing for his fellow pirates and their life of crime in the Berkeley Playhouse production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, a rock update of the operetta classic. Below: Rana Weber is nursemaid Ruth, explaining to the pirates how Frederic, her charge, ended up with pirates instead of a pilot, as was intended. Photos by Larry Abel

Singing pirates automatically make me think of two things: the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland with their rousing “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” and the dreadful and utterly loveable 1982 movie musical flop The Pirate Movie starring Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins as Mabel and Frederic, respectively, in a pop-rock adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance. Along with Grease 2 (also 1982), this is one of the worst movie musicals ever and, also like Grease 2, one of my all-time favorites. For a taste of The Pirate Movie, see the videos below. Would that I could show you the whole, terrible thing. We’d have so much fun.

I’m thinking about singing pirates because I had the pleasure of seeing Berkeley Playhouse’s production of The Pirates of Penzance this weekend. If Berkeley Playhouse is not on your radar because you think it’s a kids theater, you should think again. The Playhouse’s professional season produces shows for the entire family, and they do mean entire. Adults can have as much fun (if not more) than the kids. They hire some fantastic directors such as, in this case, Jon Tracy, who turns Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 operetta into a high-energy rock musical.

Without straining too hard, musical director Jonathan Fadner (on guitar and keyboards) and his other three players turn the score into a legitimate pop-rock score. The only difference between this and, say, Rent, is the abundance of clever, tongue-twisting lyrics and the utter sweetness of a swashbuckling show that values poetry as much as swordplay.

There’s a vague futuristic tone to Tracy’s vision, from the industrial look of Nina Ball’s sets to the punky flair of Abra Berman’s costumes, and that makes it all seem rather cartoony in a fun comic book sort of way. Why shouldn’t there be merrily marauding pirates in the future?

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The G&S story about a 21-year-old pirate – Frederic (played with dashing charm by John Paul Gonzalez) – who’s really only 5 years old because of leap year complications and his love-at-first-sight girlfriend, Mabel (the silken-voiced Juliet Heller). There’s a Pirate King, of course, played with cross-dressing panache by Cathleen Riddley, and a hard-of-hearing nursemaid who’s much cuter than she’s supposed to be (thanks to Rana Weber) and the very model of modern major general who happens to ride a motorized scooter (excellent driving and rapping by Terry Rucker).

Even musical director Fadner gets in on the act. During an Act 1 scene change, he pops up from the orchestra pit in full snorkel headgear, wailing on his guitar … with a fish.

The show is just under two hours even with an intermission and zips by with help from Emily Morrison’s fist-pumping choreography that occasionally recalls large group moves from ’80s videos – and what’s more fun than ’80s videos? The kids sitting around me were captivated by the show, especially when swords were drawn and the large cast was engaged in fight director Dave Maier’s always excellent moves.

The rock sound of the show spans the decades. There’s a lot of 1950s rockabilly with an Elvis-like rumble, not to mention ’60s surf guitars, ’70s punk and ’80s post-punk. Of course it’s all of a family-friendly variety and played at a comfortable volume.

[bonus videos]
In case your knowledge of The Pirate Movie is limited, please feel free to drink from this well of ’80s kitsch and see why Christopher Atkins and Kristy McNichol were never huge musical stars (but they’re adorable and awfully good sports). The first song, “Pumpin’ and Blowin’,” is an extreme guilty pleasure. The second song is the grand finale, with Frederic and Mabel and everyone pairing off for a happy ending. What would Gilbert and Sullivan think?


Berkeley Playhouse’s The Pirates of Penzance continues through April 1 at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$35. Call 510-835-8542 or visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org.

Sing out, Aslan! Narnia warbles a show tune

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The Pevensie children (from left), Peter (Andrew Humann), Susan (Alona Bach) and Lucy (Dakota Dry) join forces with Mrs. Beaver (Mary Gibboney) in Berkeley Playhouse’s musical version of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Below: The Pevensies get to know their Uncle Diggory (Anthony Rollins-Mullens). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

If your Narnia lacks magic, there’s a problem. C.S. Lewis’ contribution to the enchanted lands branch of children’s literature requires that the kingdom beyond the back wall of the musty old wardrobe demands magic.

The books in the Narnia series certainly do the trick of transporting readers to someplace beyond the page. The various film versions have been hit and miss with the enchantment. The most recent Disney versions are heavy on the CGI effects, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a magical spark.

Berkeley Playhouse, that bold company creating professional theater that appeals to family members of all ages, does a much more effective job locating that magic in its musical adaptation, Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The trick, it seems, was hiring director Jon Tracy, who has recently been spending a lot of time with Shotgun Players writing and directing his epic version of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Tracy is not a sentimentalist, and he’s a rigorous director. Both of those qualities serve this Narnia quite well. He’s marshalling a lot of forces here – professional adult actors, experienced child actors, child actors in training (part of Berkeley Playhouse’s educational internship), a band and a two-turntable set.

One or two of those elements might cow a weaker director, but Tracy cracks his whip – or let’s say, in this instance, waved his magic staff – and gets results.

Jules Tasca has streamlined Lewis’ book into a nearly 2 ½-hour experience that somehow finds time for nearly two dozen songs (music by Thomas Tierney and lyrics by Ted Drachman). Except in a few cases, the music is really the least interesting aspect of this show, and that’s nothing against music director Amy Dalton, who makes her crack seven-piece band sound like a much bigger orchestra.

No, what works here is what always works: story. We get sucked through that wardrobe right with the Pevensie children, and we end up caring how they fare when faced with fantastical creatures, sibling betrayal and blood-and-guts war.
It’s your basic good-vs.-evil set-up, with good represented by the children and their leader, Aslan the Christ-like Lion, and bad represented by the White Witch, whose crime is turning enemies into stone and making it always winter (and never Christmas).

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Tracy’s direction of the Pevensie children cuts the treacle by a good deal. Andrew Humann is especially good (and deadly serious) as eldest sibling Peter, and Alona Bach is just as good as the highly practical Susan. As troublesome Edmund, Alexander Franklin (alternating in the role with Will Reicher) is a believable lover of Turkish Delight and not much else. And young Dakota Dry (alternating with Maytal Bach) as Lucy is about as adorable and as heartfelt as she can be.

Of the adults, I was most captivated by Michael Barrett Austin as Mr. Tumnus, the faun. His lament, “Narnia (You Can’t Imagine),” is the song that comes closest to capturing the melancholy of Narnia under the reign of the White Witch.

Nina Ball’s scenic design makes excellent use of two turntables that allow set changes a bit of cinematic sweep (not to mention speed). It’s hard to create an epic feel on a smallish stage, but Ball and Tracy (who also designed the lights) do just that. The battle scenes (fight choreography by Dave Maier) are effective at conveying a sense of the fight without detailing the violence – a good solution for families with younger children.

Chelsea White’s costumes have a nice sense of whimsy, but her real achievement here is making Aslan (the strong-voiced Anthony Rollins-Mullens) as majestic as he needs to be. There’s a danger of making him look like a cross between Simba in The Lion King and the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, neither of which really works here. But her warrior-like headdress does just the trick.

Details like that are what makes this Narnia so sturdy and, ultimately, so effective. Director Tracy gets the details right and lets the story do the heavy lifting of making magic.


Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe continues through April 3 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $15-$33. Call 510-845-8542 or visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org for information.

Berkeley Playhouse and the future of theater

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Peter Pan (Brandy Collazo) outwits Captain Hook (Gabriel Grilli) in the Peter Pan, The musical, a Berkeley Playhouse production playing through Aug. 23 at Ashby Stage. Photo by Ralph Granich


A trip to Neverland this weekend refreshed my hope for the future – not just the future of theater, but the future of the arts and the future of this country.

It’s easy, in these disproportionately bizarre times, to lose hope. With every conceivable arts program being cut or trimmed into oblivion, those of us who value the act of creativity have reason to despair. Kids are not getting the exposure to the arts they need, and though steadfast arts groups are doing everything they can to try and fill the void, the fact is that kids who might be ignited or thrilled or even saved by the arts are slipping through the cracks.

I say this as one who was saved – repeatedly – by the arts, specifically theater, as a child and as a teen. I went to a public high school that actually had a drama program, though even then it was in the process of being whittled down, while the athletic programs – as beneficial to certain students as the arts programs are to others – was continually beefed up.

I’ve never understood why the arts have to be continually fought for. Are we really that shortsighted as a society that we fail to remember that great works of art, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Van Gogh, are among our most prized artifacts of the past? And if we continue down the underfunded road we’re on, what artifacts are we leaving to future generations?

I have complete faith that great art will continue to emerge no matter what economic suppression is at hand. But I worry that the kind of art salvation I found as a young person – that gave me a community and a sense of self-worth – is missing from the lives of too many kids who could use a little salvation.

I know that great work with young people is done at theaters around the Bay Area. From my desk at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I can see down into a rehearsal hall where the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre holds its summer intensive classes. If I were in high school or younger, those are exactly the classes I’d beg to be attending. Other such programs exist, from Cal Shakes to SF Shakes to ACT and many others, and hooray for that.

We can only hope it’s enough for now and that the parents whose children benefit from these theater classes make enough noise and keep their checkbooks open long enough to keep the programs alive so that they can expand to fill the need.

This weekend I headed over to the Ashby Stage, where Berkeley Playhouse is performing Peter Pan, The Musical. I have to say that my experiences with Berkeley Playhouse have been incredibly heartening. Artistic director Elizabeth McKoy has aimed to create a thriving theater company that creates entertainment that can be enjoyed both by children and adults – genuine family entertainment that doesn’t talk down to kids or bore adults.

Like other productions I’ve seen, including Seussical the Musical and The BFG, Peter Pan, The Musical (directed by McKoy with music direction by Phil Gorman) is captivating and more than meet’s McKoy’s institutional goals. The house as packed, and though there were many kids on laps and kids eager to fill up the first few actor-interactive rows, there were also adults there without kids in tow, adults who simply wanted to see a live, local version of a show that is most famous for turning Mary Martin into the boy who won’t grow up. In more recent years, former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby donned the green tights of Peter Pan and dazzled audiences with some of the most sophisticated flying ever seen in a theater.

I knew McKoy and her creative team would deliver a production blending child actors and grown-up professionals, but I did wonder how they’d handle the challenges of flying. I needn’t have worried. Technical director Alf Pollard, aerial/fight choreographer Mathew Graham Smith and flying operator Raymond Christy managed the trick quite handily. Aside from pixie dust, their secret is making the flying athletic, fun and completely obvious. There’s no attempt to hide the ropes on which the actors swing around, but that doesn’t lessen the fun at all. While young people might be quite used to seamless CGI special effects in movies, they seemed completely enthralled with the ropes-and-pulleys effects on the Ashby stage.

The willing suspension of disbelief, and the vicarious thrill of flying, no matter how obvious the rope, combine to make this Peter Pan soar.

It’s no wonder that McKoy’s ambition and hard work is paying off. Next season, Berkeley Playhouse will take up residence at the Julia Morgan Center with a season that includes The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain and Oliver!

And while the shows on stage are fantastic, there are music theater conservatory classes for ages 2 to 102 (as McKoy puts it). Berkeley Playhouse is filling a niche, and filling it with skill and integrity. McKoy is creating a successful model, and with any luck, in spite of these pinched, art-unfriendly times, she will inspire others to do their part in bringing theater – and the arts in general – to an ever-growing group of young people who have the misfortune to be young in a shrinking world.


Berkeley Playhouse’s Peter Pan, The Musical continues through Aug. 23 at the Ashby Stage. For ticket information or to find out more about classes and the coming season, visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org.



Review: `The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)’

Some of the enthusiastic cast members of Berkeley Playhouse’s The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) are (clockwise from top right) Nkechi, Alona Bach, Tom Darci and Niko Darci-Maher. Photo by Kevin Berne.


Berkeley Playhouse scores big fun with energetic `Giant’

In only its second full production, Berkeley Playhouse is proving itself to be a joyously reliable practitioner of family theater.

You hear the words “family theater” and tend to think of precious shows on a shoestring budget that mean well but can’t really compete with the wealth of other entertainments grabbing kids’ attention.

But Berkeley Playhouse, under the artistic direction of Elizabeth McKoy, really gets it. McKoy and her team, in addition to running classes for all ages and popular summer programs, create theater that is indeed for the entire family, meaning that adults will enjoy the experience as much as the children.

At a Saturday afternoon performance of The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), a 1982 Roald Dahl story adapted for the stage by David Wood, the packed audience at the Ashby Stage was fairly evenly split between large and small theatergoers – and it’s difficult to imagine anyone in that crowd not having a grand time.

Following last year’s vibrant, vital Seussical, the Musical, Berkeley Playhouse presents something entirely different but equally as entertaining.

From the delectably twisted imagination of Dahl comes the tale of an orphan named Sophie and the BFG, a big, friendly giant in charge of blowing dreams into children’s slumbering brains. One night, a sleepless Sophie sees the giant performing his duties, and rather than risk being tattled on and captured, the giant kidnaps her and takes her to Giant Country.

The two lonely souls become fast friends, and Sophie discovers that the BFG is alone among his giant compatriots in that he is neither evil nor flesh eating. The rest of the over-sized bunch, with names such as Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler, Bonecrusher, Meatdripper and Gizzardgulper, are foul and mean and threatening to go eat children in England.

It’s up to Sophie and the BFG to stop the carnage, so they cleverly enlist the help of the Queen of England, who marshals the resources of her navy and air force.

It’s a charming story, but the telling of it in this imaginative production is the real delight.

The play begins at a birthday party for Sophie (Alona Bach) being held in her family’s attic (fantastic set design by Kim Tolman). It’s total chaos because the hired entertainers haven’t shown up, Sophie’s mom (Nkechi) is screaming into her mobile phone and the children are wreaking havoc on the harried maid.

Sophie’s dad (Tom Darci) arrives with a package, but it’s strangely empty. “Sometimes it’s best to leave things a little loose,” he says. Then Sophie’s teenage brother (Rob Dario) arrives with his skateboarder buddies, prompting one young party-goer to moan: “Teenagers! Devastating!”

But the teens have an idea to restore order to the proceedings. They enlist everyone’s help – child and adult – to act out Sophie’s favorite story, which happens to be The BFG. Using props they find in the attic, they unfurl the story in deliciously creative ways.

The mean, ugly giants, for example, are all created by one kid partnered with one adult using household items such as crutches, umbrellas, colanders and toys. But the designs are ingeniously simple and effective (costumes are by BJ Bandy, props are by Hannah Phillips Ryan – and it’s hard to know where costumes end and props begin).

Darci plays the giant, and Sophie plays herself … sort of. To convey the sense of giant and tiny human, the character of Sophie is played by a stuffed turtle in a nightdress, and the human Sophie provides the voice.

Director Jon Tracy miraculously orchestrates the mayhem and keeps the storytelling crisp and clear. The performers, both young and old, are all capable and better yet, seem to be having a marvelous time. There’s not a weak link in the cast of 14, and everyone gets a moment to shine.

Everyone seems to relish Dahl’s linguistic flourishes as the giant talks of foul-tasting snozzcumbers, brain-bogglingsome dilemmas and stinky but musical whizzpoppers (with a young audience, there’s no end to the delight ignited by flatulence jokes).

Everything about the show is designed with young people foremost in mind. The first act contains the meat of the show, and the long, steam-letting intermission is followed by a short second act and a curtain call that invites a young audience member to come on stage and create a giant from several baskets of toys and props. Then all young audience members are invited to come up and grab a giant prop to take home. The whole experience is a kid-friendly 2 hours and 20 minutes, or thereabouts.

That’s interactive in the best sense. And of course there are winks to the adults as well. Taking a call from the American president, a young man says, “Oh, thanks Barack.” It’s also mentioned in passing that even Sarah Palin has had her share of whizzpoppers.

Fresh, funny and with far more imagination than your average movie, TV show or video game, Berkeley Playhouse’s The BFG is a BFD: a bright, fanciful, delight.


The BFG continues through Nov. 23 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $22 for children and $28 for adults. Special “pay what you can” Thursday performances Nov. 6 and 13. Every full-time K-12 teacher gets in free. Call 510-665-5565 or visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org

An Ahrens & Flaherty weekend

Broadway may have been pretty quiet last Saturday night (what with the stagehands strike and all), but the Broadway show tunes were ringing sweetly through the Bay Area.

More specifically the show tunes of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty were in the air on both sides of the Bay.

In Berkeley, the newly formed Berkeley Playhouse opened its inaugural production, Ahrens and Flaherty’s Seussical, the much-revised Broadway flop that attempted to find music in the stories of Dr. Seuss.

The Berkeley Playhouse goal is to create high-quality, professional theater that appeals to all ages, and artistic director Elizabeth McKoy and director Kimberly Dooley have succeeded mightily in meeting that goal.

Performed in the Ashby Stage, Seussical features a fantastic cast of professionals, non-professionals, adults and kids – which is a wonderful thing to see.

The show blends pieces of “Horton Hears a Who,” “The Cat in the Hat,’’ “Horton Hatches the Egg,’’ “McElligot’s Pool,’’ “The One Feathre Tail of Miss Gertrude McFuzz,’’ “The Butter Battle Book’’ and “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!’’ to name a few. And the mish-mash nature of the musical might have seemed scattershot in a big, slick, overly produced Broadway show. But within the confines of the Ashby Stage, it all seems pretty agreeable and often quite charming.

The heart of the show is Horton the Elephant, played by Brian Herndon, whose loyalty to the invisible Whos and to the egg he’s trying to hatch is very nearly heartbreaking. Herndon is terrific, as is Gail Wilson as Jojo (alternating in the role with Madeleine Roberts), the little boy who thinks extraordinary thinks (Jojo’s “It’s Possible” is a show highlight).

Another pillar of the large cast is Rebecca Pingree as Gertrude, the bird with two distinguishing features: her one-feather tail and her giant crush on Horton.

Dooley’s vibrant production isn’t cutesy or twee – it’s energetic and straightforward and utterly delightful. Her choreography is lively but not too involved, and on the technical side of things, Lisa Lutkenhouse’s costumes are enchanting (especially the polka dots for the Whos).

Music director Tal Ariel (also the keyboards maestro) and his three-piece band perform the Ahrens-Flaherty score beautifully, giving it some welcome urban edge.

The overall solidity of the production, which blends the charm and enthusiasm of community theater with the dependability and strength of professional theater makes Seussical a promising debut from Berkeley Playhouse and bodes well for future family-friendly productions.

(Seussical continues through Dec. 2. Visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org for information.)

Over at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center Ahrens and Flaherty themselves were singing songs from Seussical (“Green Eggs and Ham” and “It’s Possible”), along with songs culled from their nearly 25 years of writing musicals together.

Ahrens & Flaherty: Words & Music, a special presentation of Broadway by the Bay was a short-run revue featuring the composers playing (Flaherty), talking (mostly Ahrens) and singing (again, mostly Ahrens) along with some tremendous vocal assists from their friends Marin Mazzie and Jason Daniely – the “golden couple of Broadway.”

Mazzie, taking a break from being the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, and Daniely, taking a break from Curtains, brought some Broadway razzle dazzle and two gorgeous – and I do mean gorgeous – voices to the stage.

Picking highlights from the 90-minute show, which always felt real and unforced (unlike so many revues), is difficult. Of course Mazzie singing two of her songs from Ragtime, “Goodbye My Love” and “Back to Before,” was electrifying. She has a set of pipes that elicit the chills and tears and thrills that great show tunes should elicit.

Daniely’s “Streets of Dublin” from A Man of No Importance was equally exciting, and the composers were rather adorable on “The Show Biz,” a number cut from Ragtime.

The only show not represented in the revue is Dessa Rose, but that’s a minor complaint in the face of such gorgeous songs as “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past,” both from the animated film Anastasia, or the sexy “Mama Will Provide” from Once on This Island.

Flaherty’s bravura performance of the title song from Ragtime brought down the house, and though the evening had its share of lovely surprises – cute comedy numbers from Lucky Stiff, the first Ahrens and Flaherty show, and intriguing tastes (“Opposite You,” “I Was Here”) of The Glorious Ones, the latest Ahrens and Flaherty musical, which opened last week – the best of all was from a show that isn’t even finished yet.

The song is “Silent,” and it’s from a work in progress called Legacy based on photographs Ahrens’s father took of New York. The song is inspired by a willow tree in Central Park, and it ends up being about aging and being present and part of a beautiful world. In a word, it’s spectacular. Mazzie sang it while sitting on the piano bench next to Flaherty, and it couldn’t have been more moving. This is a song that will get to people for decades.

But that’s the thing about Ahrens and Flaherty, something that became even more apparent over the course of Words & Music: these are songwriters who challenge themselves to write new and different things each time out, and succeed because they do it with such tremendous heart, integrity and intelligence. Sure isn’t enough of that on Broadway.

Visit the official Ahrens & Flaherty Web site at www.ahrensandflaherty.com.

Berkeley gets a new Playhouse

Elizabeth McKoy(above left) and Kimberly Dooley (above right) are creating a children’s theater, and they know what they’re doing.

In addition to theatrical qualifications, the two women have, between them, six children. McKoy has four, ages 13, 10, 5 and 7 months. Dooley has a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old.
“Imagine this: me and Kimberly conducting rehearsals with babies on our hips and taking nursing breaks,” McKoy says. “Talk about family theater!”

McKoy is the artistic director of the brand-new Berkeley Playhouse, whose first production, the musical Seussical, the Musical, opens Thursday at the Ashby Stage, home of the Shotgun Players.

Dooley is directing the show, and she also happens to be the wife of Shotgun Players artistic director Patrick Dooley as well as a Shotgun company member.

There’s no shortage of children’s theater in the Bay Area, but then again, there are many definitions of children’s theater. For McKoy, who spent five years teaching at Seattle Children’s Theatre, the definition is this: high-quality professional theater involving “talented writers, sophisticated performers.”

“You don’t talk down to kids,” McKoy says. “You put it out there, let them break it down and make personal connections. Young audiences are the future of theater. If we can get audiences to shows like ours and get them to participate in education programs, we’ll have lots of people participating in theater for many, many years.”

Dooley compares what Berkeley Playhouse is aiming to do with what Pixar does on movie screens: “We want to do shows that appeal to children and adults the way Pixar makes movies for all ages that are sophisticated, complex, funny, witty, and with a core imaginative quality that appeals to kids.”

McKoy’s first local creation was the Imagination Players, a theater camp for kids that started in her living room when two of her own brood got bored in the two-week theater camp they were attending. McKoy saw their need to be involved in something more serious, more professional and more like the bonding theater experiences the kids saw the adults having.

Imagination Players quickly outgrew the McKoy household and moved to the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, which is where McKoy and Dooley met.

After last summer’s sold-out IP productions of Little Shop of Horrors and The Music Man, McKoy realized it was time to make the next step and fold her theater camp into a professional theater company and let young performers work alongside adult professionals.

“Kids are often removed from adult experiences and placed in age-appropriate curriculum,” McKoy says. “In the arts, it’s so magical to put professionals with children.”

For Seussical, the cast includes 16 adults, 11 children and a four-piece band.
“In terms of size and scope, this project is ginormous,” Dooley says. “I like it, though. It suits me.”

Dooley (above, with her Cat in the Hat) is also enjoying the show, which has been extensively retooled since its disastrous Broadway run in 2000, and says that Dr. Seuss, for all his charm and wit, provides some substantial messages about compassion, prejudice and the environment.

“I have always loved and responded to stories,” she says. “I see it in my 3-year-old daughter, her passionate love of story. I think I have an ability to key into that with kids. I love working with them and their openness. I love giving them material that’s challenging and giving them art they can ask questions of. They’re smart, and they can take it.”

With arts programs in schools continually being sidelined or cut entirely, McKoy sees a need for groups like Berkeley Playhouse.

“These experiences make better citizens and people,” McKoy says. “When kids get training in the arts, they see the world differently. They’re able to see different points of view, think creatively and outside the box. In a world of horrendous standards-based movements, the arts ask kids to think more, do more, ask questions and not just respond to fixed questions.

“Seeing kids onstage or in the audience, I watch them feel, think, make connections outside of what is being branded in movies and TV, which are corporate-driven experiences. The arts are nutrition for the soul.”

Berkeley Playhouse’s Seussical runs Thursday through Dec. 2 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $18 for children and seniors and $23 for adults. Call 510-665-5565 or visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org.