Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Illustrator and author Keats found success in the early 1960s when his book "The Snowy Day" received the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished picture book for children for 1963. Over the course of seven books, Keats would return to the African-American boy named Peter, who first appeared in "Snowy Day," and Peter's daily adventures to portray the small but memorable moments that make up a child's life. In addition to "The Snowy Day," the other books that Jerome Hairston adapted to flesh out Peter's world into this moving one-act play are "Whistle for Willie," "Goggles!," and "A Letter to Amy." This play first premiered at Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis in 2016.
Throughout the course of the show we see Peter's various experiences in life. He throws snowballs and makes snow angels and has fun in the freshly fallen snow and plays hide and seek with his friend. We witness the playful adventures he has with his dog Willie and his struggle as he tries to learn to whistle, as well as what happens when he wants to write a letter as a way to invite a special girl to his birthday party. Also, we see how Peter and his friend Archie use their imagination and a pair of goggles they found to explore a wide range of adventures, from motorcycle racing to deep sea diving. Besides the joyous and playful moments Peter and his friends experience, there is also a serious moment when Peter and Archie face the threat of some older kids who want to steal the goggles. While seriously played, this dramatic element is never too scary for young children but it helps bring realism to the play and counter the more humorous and fun moments in the show.
Katie McFadzen's skillful and spirited direction and a talented trio of actors allow for the characters of Peter and his friends to be fully realized. Andre Johnson brings a beautiful sense of wonder to Peter, infusing the many situations he has and things that he encounters with a range of emotions from utter joy to frustration, with a warm, winning smile that infuses fun-loving Peter with a neverending cheerfulness. Savannah Alfred is warm and lovable as Peter's mom yet also playful and spunky as Archie. Nathan Alfred plays several roles with ease and his narration is delivered in a straightforward and sincere way that provides a beautiful connection with the audience. All three performers deliver performances that are childlike but also honest and heartfelt.
The production plays out on Douglas Clarke's beautiful set that embodies a magical street in an urban neighborhood and also incorporates shadow puppets and projections on three large screens that mirror the memorable illustrations in Keats' books. A few short songs, musical underscoring, and some terrific sound effects from sound designer Christopher Neumeyer, along with Gail Wolfenden-Steib's colorful costumes, combine to create a bright and beautiful world full of wonder.
While Childsplay states this show is geared toward younger children, three and up, I'm happy to admit that I had a huge smile on my face throughout. While it provides a good introduction to the wonder of live theatre for children by using theatrical elements to let childhood adventures that youngsters can easily identify with play out it from of them, it also allows grownups to return to the simple wonders of childhood and experience just how enchanting and delightful the small moments in a child's life can be.
The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats at Childsplay runs through March 11th, 2018, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, Arizona, with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets are on sale at www.childsplayaz.org or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office 480-350-2822 (ext. 0).
Adapted by Jerome Hairston, based on the books by Ezra Jack Keats