Mean Mr. Slinger

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse

Nice mouse hat: Janine DeMaria as cousin Garland and Erin Ailstock in the nearly wordless role as little brother Julius.

Nice mouse hat: Janine DeMaria as cousin Garland and Erin Ailstock in the nearly wordless role as little brother Julius.

Rated 4.0

Children’s theater has been gaining ground locally for several years, with more and more community groups mounting shows aimed at kids. The Sacramento Theatre Company’s youth-oriented holiday productions of Cinderella also have generated what I call the “tiara phenomenon”—an increasing number of parents who bring their daughters to the show wearing a little crown, like the title character.

But you could say the Busfields started it all—founder Tim Busfield set up the touring Fantasy Theatre back in 1986, several years before he and his brother Buck organized the B Street Theatre for grown-ups.

Now, the B Street has launched the Children’s Theatre of California, offering shows year-round, with weekday matinees for school field trips and with public performances on weekends.

The Children’s Theatre’s first offering clearly is intended as a sample of what’s in store. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse was adapted by National Public Radio commentator Kevin Kling from Kevin Henkes’ popular picture book about a girl whose show-and-tell experience is wrecked by her teacher, Mr. Slinger, when she speaks out of turn in his class. Unlike Fantasy Theatre shows, with the “show-to-go” concept in which everything fits in a van, this production of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse is a fully mounted show with a cast of nine—bigger than the typical B Street cast—that includes three Equity actors and several grads from university theater programs.

The show also features theatrical lighting; plenty of imaginative, colorful costumes and props; and a musician/composer at the keyboard. In other words, it’s got the bells and whistles you expect from a professional piece of theater. Hence the ticket prices: $15 for children and $20 for adults, comparable to regular B Street shows.

There are, of course, some modifications. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse runs in two sections of about 35 to 40 minutes each, with an intermission (restroom break) in between. And the humor is geared toward kids—director Buck Busfield says he’s targeting ages 5 through 13, but he leans toward the younger end of that range. As with many children’s stories, this one has a moral.

It’s a slickly produced, briskly paced effort, with lots of smoothly timed, escalating sequences of related words and action, fantasy sequences with eye-appealing visuals (characters who emerge through a hidden door, and neat stuff that drops down from above) and even a scooter and a small fleet of bicycles going ’round the stage. And there’s a brief break-dancing sequence with up-tempo, percussive music—long a feature in Fantasy Theatre shows and now carried over to this venue.

Actress Tate Hanyok brims with spunky energy in the title role, backed up effectively by the duo of John Lamb and Peter Story—one little and one big, sort of like Abbott and Costello. Erin Ailstock does a lot with her nearly wordless role as Lilly’s baby brother. And ain’t it great to see sibling rivalry onstage?