Rated 3.0

There’s a good little puppet show in town, which is simultaneously homespun and rather more significant than it first appears. It’s about a Mexican boy whose father runs a panadería (bakery). The boy is expected to carry on the family business, but that’s not his desire. He dreams of becoming a lion tamer and touring with a circus. This being a story for children, you can guess how it ends.

Manuelito is a charming piece of bilingual teatro de títeres (puppet theater) at California Stage. Its presentation includes a nifty 15-minute magic show and a friendly session of community caroling, but the puppet show is the main attraction. Directed by the multidisciplinary Nina Pinckard of the CSUS Department of Theatre and Dance, the story features two big puppets—each half the size of a human. These are operated by black-garbed puppeteers, a la Japanese bunraku. There’s also an illuminated screen—scrolling sideways, with hand-drawn scenery—for shadow puppetry, akin to entertainment from Indonesia.

The cast and crew are as multi-ethnic as the presentation, reflecting ancestry from Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Many were in California Stage’s recent sold-out community musical about César Chávez, Let The Eagle Fly.

Manuelito is modest and entirely casual. The music comes from a boom box, and there is no playbill. In the best tradition, kids sit on the floor for the puppet show.

It’s also exciting. This kind of eclectic, Latino-based, world-view community theater has been in short supply for children and adults. It’s odd, considering the Sacramento region, despite bland suburban additions, was historically a Spanish colony and a part of Mexico, and is now home to a huge and growing Latino population.

Manuelito also marks the second chapter in the genesis of an ensemble that could be significant. This emerging group’s first production, Let The Eagle Fly, has received the blessings of the Chávez family to tour San Jose (where Chávez grew up) and other California cities. Producer Richard Falcón also is contemplating a local Latino Christmas pageant—an idea that is long overdue.

We sense that something truly valuable and needed is germinating here. Manuelito is small, low-tech and unassuming, but it points the way.