There's such a thing as being too safe with children's theatre. It's rather easy for artistic directors of venues geared toward children's programming to pull the latest Disney stage adaption off the shelf, or deliver material that's easily recognizable by today's kids without doing much to change it. Although there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, I'm happy to report that Imagination Stage's Janet Stanford continues to set herself apart from the other such institutions in the area as she pushes the boundaries of what defines children's theatre. Certainly, the ever-growing company's current production of Anime Momotaro, a stage adaptation of the traditional Japanese folktale first conceived at Honolulu's Theatre for Youth, is yet another solid example of the value of making theatre accessible to kids, but doing so in a stylistically interesting and innovative way.
In this charming tale, an Old Woman and an Old Man want desperately to have a child. After a long wait, they get their wish when a large peach floats down the river and a small baby boy appears from within it. They name him Momotaro ("Peach Boy"). Momotaro grows up to be a strong young man filled with courage, strength, and sound morals. As he seeks to fight giant ogres that terrorize his village with the help of several animal friends - a dog, a monkey, and a bird - he learns several valuable lessons, least of which is the fact that violence and fighting only beget violence and fighting. As Momotaro realizes that one needs to respect, honor and befriend those who are different, the adults in his life and the ogres learn the same lesson.
Adaptors Eric Johnson (Director) and Alvin Chan (Choreographer) embrace the traditional elements of this old tale while infusing it with modern elements that will make it intriguing to 21st century American kids. At the same time, a shift in the ending allows them to raise awareness of timely social issues such as bullying through a theatrical medium. Borrowing from anime and manga, art forms made popular in Japan that have attracted attention across the globe, they present the story in a stylized manner with vivid colors, live action figures, and impressive sound effects. 'Ninjas' of sorts help move the action along in a visually interesting way.
In this production, the majority of the cast is asked to play double or triple duty to act out the characters in Momotaro's adventure and to serve as 'invisible men/women' in black that help bring the adventure to life on stage. Of these, Tia Shearer (Old Woman/Nakamon the Ogre/Kiji the Bird) is the most successful at quickly and wholly transforming from one character to another - from the wise old woman and the ogre that doesn't quite fit in to the bird that's there to help Momotaro do what's needed. Her stage presence and comedic timing is undeniable and her joy of performing is infectious. Phillip Reid (Old Man/Monomon the Ogre/Inu the Dog) and Rafael Untalan (Daimon, the 'meanest' ogre of them all, and Saru the Monkey) also bring an imposing presence to their respective roles, particularly when tasked to play the bane of the village's existence - those pesky ogres.
Ryan Sellers (Koken) and Jacob Yeh (Momotaro) don't have the burden of performing multiple roles, but both rise to their own challenges. Sellers very credibly sets the tone for the story as the narrator and plays a crucial role in moving the action along. It is clear his Synetic Theater experience has been put to good use as he moves gracefully across the stage and communicates more with his body/facial expressions than many actors do with words. However, what would a production of Anime Momotaro be without a strong lead actor in the title role? Yeh has charisma in spades and is certainly up to the job. His youthful presence, strong chemistry with his counterparts, and personable charm ultimately make the play work quite well. He's one to watch to be sure.
Despite the strong cast, I do have a few qualms. With such a traditional Japanese tale (even if it's presented with a modern twist), I do wonder if the play would have worked even better with an all-Asian cast? The world presented in the production is a heightened one, but when presenting a story that is fundamentally grounded in another culture, I think it's always best to be as true to the situation as possible. Likewise, the actors are (many times) directed to speak English with an Asian accent. Whether this is a good choice is debatable. Although it did not distract me quite as much as it could have, it left me pondering whether I would have felt differently about that linguistic choice if an all-Asian cast was used. That being said (as a bit of an international relations geek), I am happy to see the production team utilized a cultural advisor (Terry Hong) to ensure the integrity of the piece. This is important given the traditional source material.