“I approve” of JOHNNY APPLESEED at The Children’s Theatre

Playing thru Feb 4, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY — I have often passed by The Children’s Theatre in downtown Salt Lake City, and wondered what kind of productions they put on there.  As a life long theatre lover, and mother of two young girls, when the opportunity to review a production at this facility came about, I jumped at the chance. As a parent, I think it is important to help children understand that live performance is much more than just entertainment.  I dressed my five-year-old in one of her best dresses, and spent the drive to Salt Lake explaining that the actors, actresses, set designers, and countless others worked very hard to give us this night of entertainment. Therefore, it is our job to respect them and their work.

The Children’s Theatre is small and intimate.  I know they are very happy to be moving to a bigger location in the spring, which I am sure will be wonderful.  I personally hope they keep the intimate feel in the larger space.  As we walked passed the concession stand, ticket taker, and into the theater, my daughter whispered “Wow, mom.  This place is really for kids!  Look at the small stage and small chairs.  Even the bathrooms are made for me!”  I have taken her to productions before, however I have never seen her so thrilled to feel like she was welcomed, even wanted, in this performance hall.

Sitting down in our seats, we looked around and waited with excited anticipation for the show to begin.  The floor of the small, thrust stage, was painted green, with apple blossoms scattered all around.  There were two logs directly in front of our seats.  Seating for this theater is general admission, and my daughter chose for us to sit on the front row.  There are only three rows, and the audience sits on three sides of the stage, so I am positive there is not a bad seat in the house.  Toward the back of the stage sat a third, larger log, with a basket of apples and some jars of perhaps apple butter or apple cider.  Surrounding this log were a few trees.  My daughter looked up at me and said “Its almost as if we are in a garden!”  I don’t think that any set designer, in this particular production that honor goes to Hazel Studio, can have a finer compliment than a five-year-old who can completely accept that we have left dead of winter minutes earlier and now reside in a beautiful apple orchard.

This being Children’s Theatre, there were a lot of loud, wiggly audience members waiting for the production to begin.   I paused to wonder how in the world the actors were going to keep the attention of these kids.  I quickly learned, as Matthew Windham entered as the title character of Johnny Appleseed, that I had underestimated the talent of this ensemble.

The story of Johnny Appleseed is one I feel I have always known.  I remember my mother had a story book about him, and this production seemed to follow along with the story I had always known.  A young man grew up around apples, and after his mother died when he was a young child, he was raised with his father, grandparents, and other family members.   He enjoyed apples, gardens, and planting, and decided to spend his life blessing others by planting apple trees all across the land.

The Children’s Theatre in Salt Lake City had really helped this story come alive.   Matthew Windham served not only as Johnny Appleseed, the grown man, but also as the narrator.  As an audience, we traveled back in time a little to see Johnny’s mother before she died, played by Alex Vermillion.  As Jonny’s mother, Vermillion masterfully plays some moments, holding a young baby, that can help the children understand how Johnny might grow up with a love of apples.   I was quite impressed with the direction, done by Joanne M. Parker, during these particular scenes with Johnny’s mother.  This is where we come to understand that Johnny’s mother does in fact die, a tough subject at times for children.   Parker was very wise in directing the actors to help this come across as a difficult, yet manageable part of life and growing up.

Windham then introduces us to Spencer Jackson Hohl, who plays a sweet and innocent young Johnny Appleseed.  He has a nice, soothing speaking voice, and a kind face.  There was a scene where he sings a little song about sweet smelling blossoms on a tree.  My daughter then sniffed and whispered “Mommy, I know this is silly, but I can almost smell the apples!”

The cast of Johnny Appleseed (most of whom played more than one role) seemed to understand that the most important thing a Children’s Theatre production can do is to awaken a child’s imagination.   Some praise should be given to the props, designed and managed by Jessica Wilson, who used tree branches, hats, blankets, bear costumes, and many other things to elicit delight and giggles from the audience. She also made a wise choice to keep her designs simple enough that it would force a child to use their imagination to do the rest.   I particularly loved a moment when a large white sheet was held by several cast members and waved up and down to symbolize a snow storm.  I glanced at my daughter and some of the other children in the audience, and it was clear that they had no difficulty believing this was a true storm.

Wilson was not only a prop mistress, she also played several roles in the show.  When I quizzed my daughter about her favorite part of the show, she stated it was a little joke masterfully done Ms. Wilson, involving blankets, when she played a character named Granny Tate.  Wilson also played Johnny’s sister, Persis, and the moments the two siblings recite the letters they write to each other during Johnny’s travels were quite touching.

Another excellent part of the show was when Johnny states that he will tell stories to the villages children.  At this point children in the audience are invited to come up on stage and sit as Johnny excitedly tells his stories.  Several of the actors are behind a back drop, and their silhouettes are used to move the story along.  This was such a great moment for the children in attendance, and as a parent it was wonderful to see my child’s eyes light up as she was invited to be a part of the process.

The rest of the cast and crew did a fine job, and I am well aware that in this day and age, it can be very difficult to entertain children who are used to fast paced video games, movies with extreme special effects, and books on iPads and other devices that  read stories to them.  Throughout the show, whenever a character felt that Johnny had done something decent and appropriate, they would tell him “I approve.”   I would like to tell the readers of the Utah Theater Bloggers Association that if you have a young person in your life, you should take them to see this show.  A simple story with an obvious mission to help children see the joy of live performance.   Let me echo the words said many times in this show, “I approve,” to the cast of Johnny Appleseed, “I approve.”

Johnny Appleseed plays Fridays at 7 PM and Saturdays at 1 and 4:30 PM through February 4th at the The Children’s Theatre (237 S. State Street, Salt Lake City). Tickets are $12. For more information, visit tcttheatre.org.

About Maren Scriven

I have a day job that pays the bills, so that by night I can play with my daughters, watch good movies and TV shows, and most of all, attend theatre.