Cultural Activities, Theater

The Journal of Ben Uchida- Oregon Children’s Theatre

This past weekend was super busy and fun and we completely wore ourselves out- in the best way possible. Right in the middle of everything, we had the opportunity to see the opening show of The Journal of Ben Uchida at Oregon Children’s Theatre.

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The Journal of Ben Uchida was originally a book, and the story has been adapted for the stage. It tells the story of 12-year-old Ben and his family. Ben, his sister, and his father are Japanese Americans who were born in the United States while his mother was born in Japan. The play begins with introducing us to the family, their interests, their relationships, and their family business. We see their routines, their lives, and their connection to each other and their community.

And then things change. Pearl Harbor is bombed, and Japanese Americans are given an order to pack one suitcase, leave their homes, and report to an internment camp. We see and hear the media messages about Japanese Americans and see the changes in how the family is treated by their community members. We then travel by train with the family to their assigned internment camp and witness their life in the camp.

The Journal of Ben Uchida is definitely deeper and heavier than any show we have previously seen there. It is beautifully designed and acted, and it touches on many topics relevant to today. We are provided with moments to witness the impact of being repeatedly exposed to hate, racism, and hurtful words. Issues related to media messaging, institutionalized racism, discriminatory government policies and actions, suicide, and family stress are all addressed in an hour. It’s a lot to take in.

Oregon Children’s Theatre typically has a scavenger hunt or other activities prior to the show. This show has an impactful art installation that includes informative panels containing historically accurate information as well has thousands of tags with the names and ID numbers of individuals placed in the internment camps. I found it very interesting, and Chicken was interested in the name tags. Nugget was not particularly engaged. The installation is definitely worth seeing, but you do not need to allocate as much time as you would for their typical activities.

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Oregon Children’s Theatre recommended this show for ages 10 and up. Chicken is just a few months shy of that age, but is in one of the grade levels they are targeting for school matinees. Nugget is younger, and I knew going in that a lot of it would go over his head. And it did.

I would actually recommend this show for middle school and up. Both Chicken and Nugget easily sat through the hour-long show, and there was nothing I felt uncomfortable with them seeing. However, I felt like Chicken did not grasp all of the subtleties of the show. Middle and high school students would be more likely to have the background knowledge and cultural awareness to get more out of the show.

This show is definitely not just for kids. We saw several adults in the audience, and I think adults would get just as much from seeing the show (if not more), than students.

So….

What it’s not: for young children, a graphic depiction of suicide (I don’t think Chicken or Nugget put together that’s what happened, and it even took me a minute to figure it out)

What it is: beautifully done, timely, relevant, an important conversation starter, great for middle school students and older

Do we recommend it: If you are looking for a conversation starter about race and discrimination, this is a fantastic stepping stone- especially for older children who are able to explore at a deeper level

The show is running until March 22, 2020 and tickets can be purchased here: https://www.octc.org/#index

Theater

Dragons Love Tacos- Oregon Children’s Theatre

If you are like us, the book Dragons Love Tacos has been read many, many times in your household. So we were quite excited to see it come to life on Oregon Children’s Theatre’s stage this past weekend!

For those not familiar with the story, a boy is home alone while his mother steps out for a moment and dragons arrive and set forth with planning a taco party- because dragons love tacos! It is critically important to make sure all toppings are mild as spicy foods lead to unfortunate tummy symptoms in dragons. When they fail to read the fine print on the jar of mild salsa which states that it now contains spicy jalapenos, chaos and destruction ensue. Luckily, they all work together to put everything back together before mom gets home. Phew!

We were lucky to be able to participate in a back stage tour before the show started. Chicken and Nugget have done this before and love it, while it was a new experience for Nugget’s friend that we brought along with us. All three of them asked questions and had fun seeing the costumes and set up close.

As we settled in to get ready for the show to start, you could hear the excitement in the audience. This is a story many kids are familiar with, especially the pre-school and kindergarten crowd, and children in this age range filled the auditorium.

The story is facilitated by a VERY energetic narrator, who arrives through the family’s television as part of a 24 part documentary about dragons. The book does not include character dialog, and the play is consistent with this. While the boy in the story has a couple of lines at the very end, the narrator otherwise provides the only talking during the show.

The costumes were really the star of this production. They are colorful, oversized structures that cover the full body of the actors while still allowing the actors to move freely. The red and yellow dragons in particular got pleased gasps from the audience as they were introduced on stage. The fire caused by the dragon’s tummy trouble was also a cool moment technically on stage.

As is typical of shows targeted toward the youngest theatre goers, the audience remained rather noisy throughout the show. While the production attempted to embrace this by creating moments for audience participation by encouraging the shouting out of answers to questions, I always have to remind myself to be understanding of the lack of typical theater behavior. Take a chill pill, mom.

There is some fun music in the show, and Nugget and his friend were dancing in their seats on more than one occasion. I caught each of them smiling and giggling at various points in the show. There is some Spanish used at the beginning of the show, and as all three kiddos go to a Spanish immersion school, they were all excited to hear this.

Overall, it was an enjoyable experience, although not necessarily my favorite. Chicken summed it up perfectly by saying “I’m glad we went but I don’t need to see it again,” To which Nugget promptly replied “What are you talking about? I would go again. Mom, can we go again?”

So…..

What it’s not: a favorite of mine or Chicken’s, a quiet audience experience, a typical play in terms of division of dialogue

What it is: enjoyable, familiar and exciting to young audiences, fantastic costumes, fun to see a family favorite brought to life

Would we recommend it? I wouldn’t NOT recommend it. While it wasn’t a favorite, it’s well done and the littles around us seemed to get a kick out of it.

Theater

Diary of a Worm, a Spider, and a Fly- Oregon Children’s Theatre

This weekend, we headed downtown to see Diary of a Worm, a Spider, and  a Fly at Oregon Children’s Theatre.  Always one for a theme, I decided to take my own spider- a.k.a Nugget in a Spider-Man sweatshirt.  Chicken and Nugget had read some, but not all, of the books in the series.  While they are not our go-tos, both kids have positive associations with the stories.

This visit we happened to get to do one of our favorite theater things- a backstage tour!  One of the many perks of being a subscriber at Oregon Children’s Theatre is the opportunity to go on a backstage tour led by Ross McKeen, the managing director of the theater.  You meet in the lobby area an hour before the performance, and are taken through the stage door just like the actors.  Mr. McKeen explains the different areas such as the green room, dressing room, the expectations for the actors, etc.  Of course the coolest part is getting to walk onto the stage and see the set and props up close.  Interesting facts or stories are told about different props and the development of the set.  You get to see the complicated rope pull area that moves curtains and stage elements, as well as see how the lights are set up.  You even get to take pictures on stage.  Nugget, of course, asked all sorts of random questions.  Our leader kindly took him seriously and answered each and every one.  The tour itself usually only takes 20 to 30 minutes, plenty of time for a bathroom break and snack before the show officially begins.  We have had fun trying to find a special prop or element we saw on stage and seeing if we can remember to identify it during the play.  This time, Nugget spotted a wig with soda cans used as rollers.  He was so excited when he saw it worn on stage!

The play itself is very cute.  It is a musical that combines different elements from various stories in the series.  The play’s storyline follows Worm, Spider, Fly, their friends Ant and Butterfly, as well as the teacher, Mrs. McBee, over the course of a school year.  Our insect friends face typical developmental challenges in a fun and accessible way- what do I want to be when I grow up?  Where do I fit in my family?  How am I the same as and different from my friends?  The music had the kids moving in their seats, and lots of giggles were heard throughout the theater.

The set is fun, comprised of oversized items that might be attractive to bugs- a pizza box, coffee cup complete with a lipstick smudge, soup can, etc.  Simple elements help creatively move us from the bugs’ outdoor world, to the rooms as they write in their diaries, and to their classroom for group discussions and presentations.

We have seen a couple of the actors in other plays, and this production very well casted really allowed them each to shine.  The teens in Oregon Children’s Theatre plays are so talented and professional, and it is fun to watch them grow on stage.

After the show we took advantage of the meet-and-greet with the cast.  This cast is made up of primarily middle school and and high school students, and they were all so sweet with the children coming for autographs.

As with most OCT plays, the run time is about an hour.  I would say the target audience is probably pre-school through second grade or so.  It’s an enjoyable show, even more so if you are familiar with the books.

So….

What it is: a familiar story to younger children, an appropriate length for younger audiences, a fun musical, family friendly, a positive message, creative staging

What it’s not: the best fit for upper elementary students

Tickets to the show can be found here:  https://www.octc.org/#index

 

Theater

Jason and the Argonauts- Oregon Children’s Theatre

 

When I first read about Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Jason and the Argonauts play, I had reservations.  Serious ones.  When it came time to renew our subscription, I read the brief summary provided which indicated that two adult men were going to use action figures and paper boats to reenact the classic tale.  Immediately, visions of creepy guys who make you want to run a background check  playing with G.I Joes on YouTube popped into my mind.  I debated whether this was one we really needed to see.  But, Oregon Children’s Theatre has never let us down and I as I have nothing but faith in their judgement and production capabilities, I put our theater fate in their hands and bought the tickets.

This weekend, it was time to find out what we had gotten ourselves into.  When I attempted to explain the play to the kiddos, Chicken simply raised her eyebrows, gave me a skeptical look, and carried on with her business.  Apparently not my best sales pitch.  Nugget, however, was immediately on board.  “You mean they’re going to play with Star Wars toys?  Cool!!”  Not quite, I told him, but all he cared about was that he was going to see someone play with toys.  Whatever floats your boat, buddy.

We left early enough to stop and have a treat at the Starbucks near theater.  If you read this blog, you will notice a theme here.  Things always go better when mom is caffeinated. Then we headed over to check out the pre-show activities.

This time, the activity was folding paper into a boat.  At least that was the intent.  There were laminated instruction sheet with visual instructions. Apparently we fail in the visual spatial skills department and couldn’t figure it out, so we scrapped that plan and made some more than adequate paper envelopes and airplanes.  We were sufficiently pleased with ourselves.

We then settled into our seats, occupying our time with the word searches found in the program, and I continued questioning my decision to come.  The lights went down, I took a deep breath, and the show began.  And about 30 seconds in we were hooked.

This show is as far from a creepy YouTube video as you can get.  The main characters, Josh and Andy, guide us through our journey, moving flawlessly between the variety of characters they play.  As Josh and Andy, they are charming, endearing, hilarious, and I walked away kind of wanting to invite them for a play date.  They take turns playing Jason, Hercules, argonauts, princesses, kings, old men, and a range of other characters and each character is distinct due to their impressive talent.  The action figures are used to perfection, mirroring the movements of the actors and vice versa.  The toys add humor, interest, and really function as supporting cast members.

Any time the play becomes a bit intense, possibly scary for littles, or goes down the path of the classic tale long enough that the younger patrons become a bit wiggly, humor is inserted at the perfect time to re-engage even the youngest viewers.   The show was so well done, you could feel the mood shifting in the auditorium as the actors moved between characters and the tone changed.  You rarely have a perfectly silent auditorium at a children’s theater, when children honor the silent pauses that hold emotion created by the actors, but this happened several times and audience members were captivated by what was happening on stage.  A noteworthy feat.

Nugget was delighted each time Spiderman made an appearance (no, he’s not in the original version), Chicken lost it when a modified version of the theme song from Titanic was sung, Nugget cheered during the sword fights, and they both sat open mouthed when a wind machine was used to blow up an inflatable tail that was attached one of the actors in order to turn him into a monster.

The lighting is beautiful and enhanced a simple but creatively functional set.  What initially appears to be a simple wooden cart transforms into a giant paper boat, a king’s throne, and later comes apart to become two pieces of set.  A wooden box functions as a toy box, prop holder, seat, and ship anchor.

I think the recommended age of 7 and up is about right.  Nugget didn’t really follow the complete story line (his summary was “it’s two guys looking for a really cool coat”), but he laughed and can’t stop talking about how funny it was.  Chicken tends to be a pretty serious theater goer and isn’t known for having strong reactions during the actual shows, although she usually has plenty to say afterwards.  This time, I heard her laugh out loud over and over again, sometimes even throwing her head back.  It was really fun to see.  She leaned over more than once to whisper “this is so good!”  Nugget clapped enthusiastically at the end, and he is definitely not one to applaud if he does not mean it.  Then he couldn’t get out of the theater fast enough to go meet the cast.

Possibly due to having only two cast members and/or the smaller audience size (it’s held in the Winningstad which has a lower seating capacity), the actors took time to chat with each child longer than I have found is typical there.  They asked each child about their favorite part, and provided a response to the child’s answer.  They were nice when Nugget asked them each to sign his program in three specific spots (the cover, their picture, and the word search), and briefly talked Timbers with him when they noticed his Timbers gear.  One even tried to prove that his beard was real when Nugget asked why he didn’t have a beard in the advertising materials.

Overall, this was definitely our favorite show of the season so far and is for sure in the top three that we have seen there.  If you are going to take your kiddo to one show this season, take them to this one.

So…

What it is: hilarious, smart, engaging, an incredibly talented cast, a perfect length for younger viewers (about 70 minutes) but probably best for those 6 or 7 and up, creative, sassy, suspenseful, silly, a simple but effective set, a play you should definitely go see

What it’s not: a fully accessible storyline for very young children (they will likely still find it funny, though)

Do we recommend it?  A million percent yes!  Go!  Go now!

The show is running until May 19th.  Grab your tickets here:  https://www.octc.org

If you can’t make this show (but you really must try), Diary of a Worm, a Spider, and a Fly is up next.  Next season will begin in the fall, and they will be doing Dragons Love Tacos!  We are so excited!

 

Theater

Legend of Rock, Paper, and Scissors- Oregon Children’s Theater

Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!  Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!  The classic game that has solved many a childhood problem, and perhaps some adulthood ones too, has become a musical!

Our trip to the theater this weekend was extra fun because we brought along one of Nugget’s friends from Kindergarten.  It was the second time this little had been to the theater (the first being a field trip earlier this school year), and it was fun to see the magic fresh through his eyes.

Both boys had been on a daily countdown for their theater date for a couple of weeks.  At home, we read the book again to get ready.  We ate dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets.  We wondered how the battles would go.  We were ready!  So, it turns out, was our little friend.  When his mom sent a picture that morning of our friend sitting on a chair staring out the window waiting for us to arrive, we kicked into high gear and got there early so we could all go for hot chocolate.

So into the car we all piled, with Chicken taking on the role of caregiver and theater expert for both boys.  She explained to our friend how it all works, asked if he would like to participate in the pre-show activities, and wondered if he would like to get his program signed after the show.  Chicken and Nugget were both thrilled when he said yes to all of the above.

Getting there so early meant we got a prime parking spot.  Yay!  We walked around the corner to the closest Starbucks and chit chatted as we enjoyed our drinks.  Then we made sure not to step on any lines on our way back to the theater- wouldn’t want to get electrocuted so close to show time!

The preshow activity for this play was a coloring and writing activity.  There were coloring sheets and fresh crayons (fresh crayons are a big deal in kid land) for each Rock, Paper, and Scissors.  There was also writing prompt paper kids could use to create their own stories.  All of the kiddos did a great job coloring and we smartly carried our papers into the theater with us. Once seated, they of course had play the Rock, Paper, Scissors game, complete with a referee for any questionable calls.  When the lights went down, the kids were so ready!

The play has a set up reminiscent of a wrestling match.  There is a narrator who introduces our heros- and frequently gets interrupted by Rock.  The narrator provides us with background information and builds the excitement for the various battles in a way that reminded me of a circus ringleader- in a good way.  The audience was encouraged to cheer for the characters and those in the front row got running high fives from some of the cast.  The boys decided to wave their papers for their favorite characters, just like waving a fan sign at a sporting event.  We were in the back row of the orchestra, so it was a great way for them to get engaged without blocking anyone else’s view.

Each main character has a battle or two with opponents from their realm, only to find themselves insufficiently challenged.  At the end, they all battle each other and find they win some and lose some, and that is okay!  It’s definitely a play with a good message.

The songs were long and a bit repetitive and the set was not at the same level of amazingness I have come to appreciate at Oregon Children’s Theater.  But I did love the incorporation of a variety of styles of music.  Each character had a style associated with them.   Rock (guess who that was for), jazzy/bluesy music for Paper, and a bit of salsa flair for Scissors.  The boys were bopping along to the rock and jazz, while Chicken was swaying in her seat to the salsa.  Scissors also incorporated a bit of Spanish, and all of the kids I had with me speak Spanish to varying degrees.  The actor playing the narrator was fun and fantastic.  Although the peach was only on stage for a few minutes, he was hilarious and full of sass- definitely one of our favorite characters.

What it it: Kid friendly, funny, including of a variety of music, engaging of the audience, based on a fun children’s book and true to that story, nonviolent despite the concept of the battles

What it is not: the best set we’ve seen at this theater

Do we recommend it:  Yes!  Especially with hot chocolate and extra especially if your child is a fan of the book

 

Theater

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed- Oregon Children’s Theater

“We are naked!  Naked mole rats!”  This song has been stuck in my head since we saw this play.  Twice.

The current production at Oregon Children’s Theater is based on a book by the same name- Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.  Only theirs is a “rock experience.”  There were many things we enjoyed about this play….  the music, the band being on stage, the lighting, the sets, and socks magically falling from the sky.  It moved quickly and had a nice message- it’s ok to be yourself and do what you want as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else.

The story follows Wilbur, a naked mole rat who loves fashion and a good accessory.  The other mole rats aren’t sure what to make of him, and some are openly against.  They eventually seek guidance from the great Grandpa, who decides, “why not?” when it comes to getting dressed.

The script was funny- although some of the humor was a bit forced at times.  There were several jokes aimed at the grownups in the audience, which was nice and a bit different from most of the plays there.  There were jokes about the Gap, H&M, ‘fake news,’ and other topics not necessarily familiar to the younger audience members.  There is a dance party at the end, which always makes for a good time.  The word naked is used A LOT, and bottoms are scratched and shaken, making it a hit with the little boys in the audience.

Chicken, Nugget, and I saw it over the weekend, and I got to go again during the week with Nugget’s Kindergarten class.  I heard Chicken laugh several times, but after it was over she indicated it was not her favorite.  Nugget loved it and has been singing songs from the show ever since.  He’s even been wearing his hooded sweatshirts backwards to try and mimic the shape of the mole rat costumes.

The first time we saw it, the show lost its audience a little over half way through.  Kids got squirrly and the noise level increased.  When we saw it on the field trip, the kids were very into it.  Lots of laughs, comments being shouted out to the characters, and lots of cheers.

Our reviews?  Chicken- “I didn’t like it” (but I saw her smiling and laughing).  Nugget- “Can we go see it again when it comes back to town?” (after seeing it twice).

What it is: a cute show with a good message, well produced, high energy, a fun book tie-in, catchy music

What it’s not: our favorite show ever

Would we recommend it?  If it’s going to be the one and only play you take your kids to, we might suggest another.  If you are looking for a fun afternoon with your children and not looking for a defining theatrical moment, it’s a great time!

The show is running through February 17th, and tickets can be purchased at:

https://www.octc.org/naked-mole-rat/

Theater

Ella Enchanted (Oregon Children’s Theater)

So this weekend was Ella Enchanted at OCT.  Nugget was in a cranky mood and said he in no way wanted to go watch a show about princesses.  I told him this was an un-princess story and to get his little tushy in the car (and be nice about it).  With a frown on his face, he got in the car and buckled up.  He even found a pair of headphones in the car and put them on so he wouldn’t have to be tortured with all the princessness.  I ignored him and acted as if everything was fine.  So it was one of those mornings.  Yay.

Ella Enchanted is the story of a princess who is given the gift/curse of obedience.  She has to do anything anyone tells her to, which has some obvious down sides.  Ella is a likeable young girl who strives to find her independence. She has a an endearing mother, a wicked step family, and a clueless step father who make her plight all the more difficult.  All the trappings of a classic fairy tale.

We got there and found our seats to be in the first balcony.  We had never had seats there before and they were pretty good!  Nugget kept on his cranky pants- and the headphones.  But he did subtly lift them up during the good parts and had a list of things he liked once the play was over.

Chicken did a lot of giggling and smiling.  The evil step sisters were a hit, and she loved the concept of the play.  She was able to draw parallels between Ella and other well known fairy tales.  She was even pleased to find the word “obey” on a vocabulary test at school a few days later!  Who says theater isn’t educational?

Overall, the talent was fantastic and the staging was beautiful.  There were a few parts that could have been cut out and I don’t think any of us would have missed them.  But even those parts were pleasant enough.

What it is: sweet, funny, with a positive female lead, and un-princess fairy tale, well produced,  and enjoyable.

What it is not: super fast paced, Nugget’s favorite

Would we recommend it:  Chicken and I would, Nugget not so much