Inside the mind of the ‘Weird Al of children’s theater’
Often referred to as the “Weird Al of children’s theater,” Janinne Chadwick has spent the better part of the last 13 years rewriting traditional fairytales and folktales with a contemporary twist, and bringing them to life onstage.
Her most recent project, “Alice’s Avengers in Underland”—think “Alice in Wonderland” meets the 1960s Batman television series—will open Little People’s Repertory Theatre’s summer season, July 25-Aug. 4 at Park Hall in Ben Lomond.
As the writer and executive producer for LPRT, all of Chadwick’s productions and the contemporary pop and classic rock song parodies that accompany them, are tailor-made for a cast of more than 70 children between the ages of 8 and 14.
“It is a [LPRT] tradition,” Chadwick says. “It has been my thrill and challenge every year to find stories that can be made contemporary.”
Chadwick has long-awaited the opportunity to work with Lewis Carroll’s “weird, beautiful, and witty” novel and she fondly remembers watching the Batman series as a child. Under her creative direction, the compelling characters that Alice (now “Bat Girl”) meets have been recast as classic Batman villains—The Mad Hatter is The Riddler, Cheshire Cat is The Joker, and The Queen of Hearts is Cat Woman, to name a few.
“Last year’s theme was monsters, so it seemed perfect to have superheroes for this year,” Chadwick says. “I wanted our Alice to be a crime fighter, a kind of Nancy Drew, mixed in with a full-on ’60s psychedelic Batman and Robin.”
Chadwick began working with LPRT 15 years ago as a parent volunteer. Considered to be one of the most affordable children’s theater companies in Santa Cruz County, and the only one doing such contemporary, parody-based productions, LPRT’s unique approach to theater won Chadwick over instantly and has motivated her to stick around for more than a decade. While her background is not rooted in theater, as a former performance artist and musician, Chadwick feels that she has found a creative outlet with LPRT.
She cites listening to the Allan Sherman records her parents would spin, and the 1960s and ’70s sitcoms she watched in her youth, as deep sources of inspiration for her parodies. So far, she’s done everything from a Gilligan’s Island-themed rendition of “The Jungle Book,” to a “Peter Pan” saga modeled after Star Wars, and “Cinderella” with a Twilight twist.
“The challenge is that we always end up with 70 to 73 kids in the cast, everyone gets at least two lines, and we have 24 musical numbers in the show,” Chadwick explains. “In order for the play to not be five hours long, we really focus on the music, and the scenes move quickly because most of the dialogue is in the songs.”
Chadwick notes that 10 years ago, most of the musical parodies came from classic songs from artists like The Rolling Stones and Queen. In the past few years however, she has made an effort to include popular music that the young cast is more familiar with. “Alice’s Avengers in Underland” for example, will include a musical number called “Gotham Style,” mocking the 2012 K-pop song “Gangnam Style.”
“Each year we try to have some iconic pop culture icon that the kids get to learn about and parody,” Chadwick says. “The kids get to do some songs that they really like and they are exposed to classics as well.”
For her day job, Chadwick works as an early childhood educator for Cabrillo College and also lectures at Cal State University Monterey Bay. Consequently, her approach to children’s theater has a heavy emphasis on the creative input of the children involved.
“Our goal is to strike a balance between a quality show, a show that we feel good about charging the public money to come and see, and having it be in equal parts a developmentally appropriate learning experience for kids,” she says.
That balance is reflected in the underlying themes of Chadwick’s plays. In “Alice’s Avengers in Underland,” the characters are asked to consider the fine line between “good” and “bad.” The moral is simple and to the point: Be a good citizen and make good choices.
While the plays are designed to be a learning experience for the children, parents and friends are encouraged to participate. And they do every year. A full rock band made up of parents and LPRT alumni accompanies every production. Parent volunteers also build and paint sets, sew costumes, and host the receptions for LPRT’s summer season.
“We have people who stay even after their kids are gone. It has become such a community event and the kids see that, and they see that the adults are proud of them and that they work really hard,” Chadwick beams. “It’s rewarding for everyone because they are involved in something that the whole community is proud of.”
‘Alice’s Avengers in Underland’ runs July 25-Aug. 4 at Park Hall, 9370 Mill St., Ben Lomond. Tickets are $8.50-14.50. Visit lprt.org/tickets. Photo: Lisa Nicolosi