Children’s theatre is tricky business. It’s a bit like cooking for kids.
The easy way out is all sugary sweets. Give ‘em saccharine fake smiles and stories so simplistic they’re easily digestible without any real thought. Like that ice cream cone for breakfast, it may hold the child’s attention for a few minutes but … is it really what they need?
24th Street theater takes a more nuanced approach to kids’ theater. It’s not that they have anything against sweets (heck, there’s literally carrot cake in the lobby after their show) but they appreciate that kids deserve better and are ready for it.
With their latest play “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” they adapt akids book about the journey of toy rabbit into a stripped down, complicated journey of redemption.
If you remember “The Velveteen Rabbit,” you could think of “Edward Tulane” as “The Velveteen Rabbit” meets “Grapes of Wrath” - without the bad bunny part. Okay, that’s maybe a bit much. How about “The Velveteen Rabbit” as a road movie through the depression era south?
Edward Tulane is a very expensive china rabbit. Abilene’s grandma had him -- and his extensive wardrobe -- specially made for her in Paris. It’s a lovely gift and Edward is quite, quite happy with himself. He’s one of those toys who thinks a lot of himself and not much of the world around him. Doll hubris, anyone?
Abilene’s grandma, while generous, is a little odd. She’s got some special connection to the doll’s thoughts and has a penchant for telling fairy tales so harsh they’d make the Grimm Brothers flinch. She tells the rabbit that she’s disappointed in him and his attitude about love. This really gets under Edward’s fur.
Now, if I were going to put on my adult dramaturgical hat - this whole bit with Abilene’s grandma is a little murky. It’s the engine for the rest of the journey and I’m not sure it’s doing the story justice. But …if I put on my kids dramaturgical hat - well, who didn’t have a grandma, or know one, who was a little distant and seemed to have strange, strict powers?
Without giving too much of the story away, let’s just say Abilene and Edward are separated - beginning an episodic journey for the rabbit as he passes from one temporary owner to the next in search of the meaning of love. Along the way, we meet a hobo and his dog, a young boy caring for his sick sister, a couple with an empty chair at their table - and more than a couple bullies. We also get some beautiful harmonies and even a little bit of clowning in that hobo’s snarky dog.
And, yes - there is carrot cake in the lobby afterwards - but that sweetness comes after a full-balanced meal of theater for young minds. I’d say it’s good for kids six and up but at the performance I saw there were some a couple years younger who managed the scary parts just fine.
When you take your kids - and you should - take a moment to soak in the vibe in the theater and the lobby before and after the show. You’ll not only see a wonderfully vibrant audience but you’ll feel a theater that’s connected to community - something that, like kids theater itself, is all too rare in LA theater.
“The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” plays at 24th Street Theatre on the edge of downtown through May 19th.