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Thursday, 19 December 2013 02:31

'The Velveteen Rabbit' charms young and old alike

Written by Tina Farmer
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Michael Fariss as the Boy, Katie Hamilton-Meier as the Velveteen Rabbit and Laurie McConnell as Margery
Michael Fariss as the Boy, Katie Hamilton-Meier as the Velveteen Rabbit and Laurie McConnell as Margery repstl.org / Eric Woolsey

Introducing young children to the magic of theater is no small challenge. Luckily, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has found the perfect balance of story, song, and warmth to entice little audiences.

The Imaginary Theatre Company's production of "The Velveteen Rabbit" is a charming and engaging show with particular appeal for young children. With a running time of about an hour, it's also the perfect length for little attention spans, making this show an excellent choice for arts patrons looking to share the magic and excitement of live theater.

The much-loved tale of a boy's favorite spotted rabbit, adapted by Kim Wylie, is direct and cheerfully appealing. The production features delightfully animated characters, wonderfully bright and colorful costumes, and an inventive, easily manipulated fabric stage. The costumes and stage dressing are not only designed to appeal to children, they're also quite easily changed to keep the story moving even during set changes.The Velveteen Rabbit's quest to be "real" is retold with sincerity and song, which adds nice variety to the performance. The songs follow simple melodies and the dialogue is straightforward, with no long monologues or complicated plot twists that might cause confusion. The story also delivers a positive message about lasting love and the lifelong bonds without being heavy-handed or moralistic.

Alan Knoll is comically adroit in multiple roles, including as the husband, aunt and bustling, fussing Nana, as well as the toy horse and wild rabbit. His use of accents and affectations helps to distinguish the many characters he plays, and he obviously delights in the challenge. Knoll's attention to detail is impressive as well. The pace at which he speaks and walks, his posture, even the way he lists forward when standing still, changes for each character.

Michael Fariss displays youthful innocence in his portrayal of the little boy and a heaping helping of false bravado as the toy boat. An adult playing a very young child is always a dicey proposition, but Fariss sparkles in his performance. He balances a genuine sense of wonder and boundless energy with an earnest delivery. His little boy is curious and loving, with broad emotional shifts that felt just right for a 6-year old. When his moment of crisis comes near the end of the play, I must admit I shed a tear or two of worry.

Katie Hamilton-Meier and Laurie McConnell, as the Velveteen Rabbit and Mother, respectively, also shine in their roles. Hamilton-Meier is naïve, and a little uncertain, but very eager to please and to be loved. Her Velveteen Rabbit may not be the brightest, but it is genuinely sweet and good-natured.

McConnell's Mother is the constant, guiding the audience through the play and providing exposition as needed, always with a patient, kind approach that endears her to the audience. As a parent I felt her pain and concern as well as her cheerful patience, and the children in the audience seemed to respond to her warmth with an affection of their own.

The children in the audience were well behaved during the entire production, a testament to the cast's ability to keep their interest. There were small outbursts and comments at times, but always in appreciation of the action on stage. With a question and answer period following the show and a storytelling activity included in the program, every aspect of the production is well thought-out and geared towards the kids.

It can be difficult to keep the attention of a theater full of children, even for a short play. The four cast members each add their own magic touch, and there's a healthy dose of comedy to ensure that the adults in the crowd pay attention as well. The result is a wonderful show perfect for young audiences.

"The Velveteen Rabbit" runs through December 23, 2013, and tickets may be purchased through the online box office or by calling (314) 968-4925. For more information, visit www.repstl.org.

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