OREM — The biggest draw for Utah Valley University’s production of their children’s theatre production of Aurand Harris’s Androcles and the Lion was, for me, the fact that it is a commedia dell’arte style piece.  I’m a big fan of the genre—an Italian theatre style heavy on improvisation, audience interaction, stock characters and physical comedy that was huge in the 16th and 17th centuries—and am always excited when theatre companies choose to introduce it to their audiences.

Show closes November 17, 2012.

Set designer Brian Healy did an excellent job of establishing the world of the piece. Walking into the Noorda Theatre, I was pulled into the simple, yet classic commedia-style performing space. Healy superbly captured the outdoor, touring troupe sense of the commedia world with a simple wooden platform creating a stage, the traveling wagon that would be the home for the actors. Healy also incorporated the traditional Harlequin diamonds into the backdrop.  It was easy to imagine a troupe of actors traveling around and setting up their show wherever they could find an audience.

Director John Newman had great instincts in trying to prepare the audience for the show they are about to see.  As patrons are filing in, Newman had two of his three Clowns (Sharayah Anderson, Emma Christopherson and Zachary Cotter) introduce themselves and explain their expectations for the audience (mostly the fact that it would be an “interactive” night). These three actors also explained several of the musical instruments and sound-effect creators that they would use throughout the night.  The instinct was good, but unfortunately, the execution fell a little flat.  While a big potential factor in it not working as well as hoped could be due to the fact that there were a dismal number of actual children in the audience (and the adults weren’t always inclined to cooperate), the clowns did not seem completely comfortable in the “improv” nature of their roles.  This stilted start, along with some technical issues at the beginning of the show, created an obstacle that the cast needed to hurdle in order for the show to get back on track.

Luckily, Newman has assembled a cast that is very earnest in their desire for the show to work.  Ryan Cluff as Androcles is lovable and endearing, and has a great sense of the physical comedy.  Cluff captures the necessary mix between cunning and stupidity that makes him endearing to the audience. Maddy Forsyth (Isabella) and Shawn Saunders (Lelio) are the other two standouts as the charming, if slightly air-headed, lovers who are being kept apart. While the commedia style can easily be seen as “over the top,” Forsyth and Saunders manage to ground the extreme choices of their characters, enticing the audience to root for their relationships despite (or perhaps, because of) their silly and naive declarations and actions. These three work particularly well with the Clowns, who are always lingering off stage in order to provide the soundtrack of the show through their various instruments.  While the verbal improv before the show might not be their strong point, the Clowns shine in their non-verbal roles, whether it be sound effects, creating scenery on stage or simply providing commentary through their very expressive faces.  When the actors have excellent comical timing, such as during the broom dance with Androcles and when Androcles is used to deliver letters between the lovers, then the show is fabulous.  It is all charm and hilarity, and something that I wanted to engage with.

While the show never seemed to reach its full potential (though there is hope that it will continue to tighten throughout the run, especially when more children are present), it did manage to accomplish the goal of creating a fun, entertaining evening of theatre for young children.  Half of the enjoyment of the show for me that night was watching the two young girls who were sitting on cushions near the front of the stage.  As they became more comfortable with the style of the show and realized that they had permission to interact with the actors, the joy in their expressions and their reactions was tangible.  One girl in particular grew steadily more giddy throughout the performance, and the level of her enjoyment (and connection with the show) was cemented when I watched her run out of the theatre and straight into the arms of the actors that were waiting in the lobby.  The excitement of the children was catching, creating a positive effect on the energy on stage and even managing to pull even the most reluctant adult audience member into the action.

All in all, Androcles and the Lion is a great show to bring your kids too.  The fun, comedic and interactive nature of the show is a solid introduction to theatre and the story teaches some great life lessons in a very entertaining way.  And if you can’t bring a child, then bring a child-at-heart, and you will easily be charmed by this production.

Androcles and the Lion plays  Nov 1 through 17 at 7:30 PM and November 10 and 17 at 2 PM at the Noorda Theatre on the campus of Utah Valley University. Tickets are $15. For more info visit www.uvu.edu.