A trip to the Allendale Theatre, where the average age of theatergoers hovers somewhere around 10, is bound to include a few spontaneous surprises.
During Wednesday morning’s school-time performance of Theatre of Youth’s “Madeline’s Christmas,” one of those moments came during an exchange between the diminutive title character (Faith Walh) and a mysterious bearded magician named Harsha (Tim Newell), who arrives one frigid evening to sell a dozen magic carpets to the impossibly well-mannered inhabitants of Miss Clavel’s modest Parisian boarding school.
After Harsha recounts to Madeline some of her own well-chronicled misadventures, she gives him a quizzical look.
“How do you know so much about me?” she asks.
“I read,” he replies, tossing in that trademark Newell eyebrow-raise familiar to so many Theatre of Youth regulars young and old. The crowd chuckles on cue.
But one kid in the middle of the theater, evidently a reader himself, knows better.
“He’s a wizard,” the boy says before being politely shushed, emphasizing the first syllable of the word as if to say, “Is this not obvious?”
It’s tough to pull one over on these kids. Or, really, any kids. And this thoroughly charming, simple and beautifully executed production directed by Meg Quinn succeeds, like so many Theatre of Youth productions, because it makes absolutely no attempt to do so.
TOY audiences last saw young Madeline and her 11 fellow prim and proper Parisian playmates in a 2008 production that was as welcome and well-received as a steaming mug of hot chocolate after a brisk walk in the snow. The story, perfectly charted by author Ludwig Bemelmans, adapted for the stage by Jennifer Kirkeby and set to music by Shirley Mier with crucial additional sound design by Chester Popiolkowski, begins as the 12 young residents of Miss Clavel’s convent school trudge through the snow in their matching red coats to the zoo, with independent Madeline trailing happily behind.
All but Madeline have forgotten their scarves and so upon their return to the school, rendered on a lovely and simple series of backdrops by TOY’s resident design wizard, Kenneth Shaw, they collectively catch colds.
Their trips home for Christmas appear to be in jeopardy, as traveling with the sniffles is out of the question.
That is, until the arrival of Harsha, who knocks on the convent’s door and eventually works his wizardry on the whole bunch, sending the girls sailing home on their enchanted carpets over the glimmering Eiffel Tower and saving Christmas in the process.
As Madeline, Walh, a fourth-grader at St. John Vianney in Orchard Park, captures all the impetuousness and independent spirit Bemelmans wrote into his beloved protagonist. TOY veterans Newell, Megan Callahan (Miss Clavel) and Mary Kate O’Connell (the harried Mrs. Murphy) are consummate pros at leading this gifted young cast through the expected but enchanting twists and turns of this classic Christmas story.
Like the best children’s stories, it is shot through with mystery and magic and contains lessons that are more organic and charming – wear your scarves, kids, lest you catch cold – than didactic.
And not all the young audience members were as skeptical as the boy who piped up to let his fellow students know about the real nature of Newell’s character.
In the question and answer session following Wednesday’s production, a young theatergoer asked one of the more wonderful questions I remember hearing at TOY: “Is the magic real?”
The play contains a pretty good answer.
“Life is full of mystery and beauty, oui?” Madeline asks Miss Clavel toward the end of the show. To which Miss Clavel delivers the only proper response: “Oui.”
3½ stars (Out of four)
Musical extended, with 5:30 p.m. performance today, Dec. 14, and one at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15, in the Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St. Tickets are $26 to $28. Call 884-4400 or visit www.theatreofyouth.org.