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Child’s play: Find family-friendly theater in unexpected places

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Goodbye, Willy Loman and Sweeney Todd. Hello, Peter Pan and Astro Boy.

Local theaters that don’t generally put on family-friendly shows are taking a tip from popular kid-focused venues, including Imagination Stage and Adventure Theatre, and staging their own age-spanning entertainment.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they’ll be handling audiences with kid gloves. Pixar (the movie studio behind “Up” and “Toy Story”) has set a precedent: It’s just as important to please the ticket buyers as their diminutive companions.

“You can’t do bad children’s theater just to do children’s theater, because then you’re really just doing a disservice,” says Joshua Morgan, co-artistic director of No Rules Theatre Company, the group behind the thought-provoking shows “Stop Kiss” and “Touch.” (No Rules stages “Peter Pan” this month.)

For some, the motivation to open their doors to kids also may have something to do with profit, not to mention grooming a future audience.

“The thinking is it’s rather recession proof,” says Leslie A. Kobylinski, artistic director of First Draft at Charter Theatre, which seeks to expand Washington theater audiences. Last year the nonprofit group collaborated with 1st Stage in McLean on “Jack and the Bean-Stalk” after a promising reading at the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage festival.

“We actually had one of our largest crowds ever at Page-to-Stage when we put up ‘Jack and the Bean-Stalk,’ ” Kobylinski says.

“Usually we do edgier new play work, but we filled the Family Theater at the Kennedy Center, which is big for a reading.”

For Kobylinski, the demand was clear. And this month, theaters are responding by mounting shows designed to entertain all ages. So, give the babysitter a break, and have a night on the town with the whole family.

Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers

Best for age 10 and older

One look at the darker title of No Rules Theatre Company’s incarnation of “Peter Pan” and you might wonder whether it’s the same classic children’s tale you grew up with.

“We didn’t make this title up,” Morgan says. “That’s what [‘Peter Pan’ author] J.M. Barrie originally wanted the play to be called, but his producers and publishers were like, ‘That won’t sell.’ ”

This world-premiere rendition, adapted and directed by Michael Lluberes, more accurately follows Barrie’s source material, which was inspired by his childhood. The author’s mother never recovered after her older son and, arguably, favorite child died in a skating accident at age 13. In that vein, “The Boy Who Hated Mothers” begins with the death of Michael Darling — John and Wendy’s brother — and actress Lisa Hodsoll plays the evil Captain Hook and Mrs. Darling.

“We keep equating this to ‘Harry Potter,’ ” Morgan says of the target age group for the show. “There’s nothing overtly sexual about the play; there’s no bad language. But I think the theme of a mother becoming this villainous character — I don’t want a 4-year-old watching that.”

Yet this “Peter Pan” still celebrates the wonder of childlike imagination. The flying scenes, for example, rely on suspending disbelief, not on stage props. “We weren’t interested in rigging anybody up,” Morgan says.

But just as the show revels in the fantastical, it also plays up reality, giving grown-ups food for thought.

“When we did the reading at the Kennedy Center, we had a lot of older generations — 40 to 60s — who had a real emotional response to it, because the play sort of explores the pros and cons of growing up,” Morgan says. “What does it mean to grow up? And what are the great things that come along with that, and what are the not-so-great things that come along with that?”

Thought-provoking is the name of the game for the fledgling No Rules, whose credits include the upcoming “Suicide Incorporated” and last fall’s well-received “Stop Kiss,” a show about a hate crime and two women falling unexpectedly in love.

Although “Peter Pan” isn’t the group’s first family-friendly show — that was last season’s “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” — it does mark a new approach. The production is No Rules’ first commissioned play and first wholly new main-stage show. The play about not wanting to grow up turns out to be a milestone on the group’s path toward maturity.

“Ultimately I feel like [the show] honors children and their imagination and their experience, and how what they’re living right now is so remarkably important to who they become,” Morgan says.

Wednesday-March 3. H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. norulestheatre.org. $25; pay-what-you-can preview Wednesday, and $10 previews Thursday through Feb. 12. $15 rush tickets are available for full-time students one hour before curtain on a seating-available basis.

Astro Boy and the God of Comics

Best for age 14 and older

The subversive Studio Theatre is hardly known for its kid-friendly fare, and this play by writer-director Natsu Onoda Power wasn’t exactly designed for the cafeteria crowd. But given its roots in anime and its inception — born of Power’s childhood obsession — the show seems a good fit for high-schoolers. It might even be the ideal theater introduction for those who prefer comic books to curtain calls.

The “intergalactic” world premiere unfolds in episodes, following three narratives — the story of Astro Boy (the classic Japanese anime character created in 1952), the biography of his originator, Osamu Tezuka, and the history of Japanese animation. Aside from the show’s unconventional structure, there’s something else a little different.

“What might be interesting about this production is people draw onstage,” Power says of her second Studio Theatre collaboration. “I hesitate to say it’s new and interesting, because I’ve been doing kind of like the same thing for 10 years.”

Power sees it as a theatrical genre that blends acted scenes with drawing, choreography, audio clips and video. The setup seems perfectly suited for this story: As actors Joe Brack, Jamie Gahlon and JB Tadena bound onstage to take black ink to a massive sheet of paper, their stylized movements and facial expressions give the illusion that they have been lifted directly from the pages of a comic book. The only thing missing is a “POW!” popping up above their heads.

The actors proved their drawing abilities during auditions, but they had a week-long boot camp of drawing classes and choreography to hone their skills before rehearsals.

“They are still exhausted from it,” Power jokes.

But the result is something decades in the making. As a grade-schooler in Japan, Power became captivated with Tezuka’s books and started creating handmade comics with her brother. (“We would bind artwork with Scotch tape and make a magazine,” she says.) She even went to visit the cartoonist when she was in sixth grade and asked to be his assistant after showing her work to him.

“He said, ‘Well, it’s very good, but you should finish middle school,’ ” Power recalls. He told her to come back in three years if she was still interested, but he died 18 months later.

“Promise not kept, right?” Power says.

Not exactly. Power took Tezuka’s words of wisdom about diversifying her interests and fashioned a career out of them.

She says he told her: “If you’re serious, and if you want to do this, a good cartoonist shouldn’t just read comics. You should go see movies, you should go see plays and you should listen to music and all these other things.”

Feb. 15-March 11. Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. www.studiotheatre.org. 202-332-3300. $30-$35; $19 rush tickets available for full-time students 30 minutes before curtain on a seating-available basis (except Saturday evenings).

Three Bears

Best for age 5 and older

After a Helen Hayes recommendation and the box-office success of last season’s “Jack and the Bean-Stalk,” the powers that be at First Draft and 1st Stage decided to give the kid-friendly collaboration another go.

Playwright Mario Baldessari and director Kobylinski are once again teaming up, this time to tell the tale of Goldilocks’s search for the perfect porridge, chair and bed. But audiences can expect a few twists — this “Three Bears” is an a capella musical, and Goldilocks, er, Sergeant Goldilocks, is played by actor Gannon O’Brien.

“It’s a lot of laughs,” Kobylinski says. “And it’s definitely aimed at a younger audience, but there are plenty of laughs for adults. In fact, probably far more than kids ever realize.”

That’s one of the most important ingredients for a successful show, according to Kobylinski, who calls this brand of theater “programming for kids and their families” to hammer home the point that all parties need to be entertained. That includes the most difficult-to-please audience members: teenagers. Luckily, Kobylinski says, some of the high school set took a liking to last season’s show.

“I think they were surprised, because a lot of them were sort of arms crossed, ‘Really? I’m going to sit through “Jack and the Bean-Stalk?”  ’ And by the end they were laughing their heads off,” she says.

That being said, the production is not without challenges. Like “Jack,” “Three Bears” will run concurrently with another 1st Stage production, which means the kids show will share a set with the adults-only “Almost, Maine.”

But the potential benefits far outweigh the obstacles.

“If we’re an audience-building organization, that’s the newest audience we can get,” Kobylinski says, referring to First Draft’s mission. “That’s the future of theater.”

Thursday-March 4. 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., McLean. 703-854-1856. 1ststagespringhill.org. $15.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Best for age 5 and older

Has a hapless character ever been as lovable as Charlie Brown with his curlicue of hair, dots for eyes and sartorially singular yellow and black zigzags? Sixty years after cartoonist Charles Schulz developed the “Peanuts” comic strip, the gang’s popularity persists.

And for New York-based director Stephen Nachamie, the character has been a gift that keeps on giving. Not only was he a huge fan of the strip growing up, but Olney is the third theater to approach him about directing the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

It will be the director’s third time working with Olney, which mounted this season’s all-ages “The Sound of Music” as well as the more mature Agatha Christie adaptation “Witness for the Prosecution.” And revisiting the colorful characters is akin to reuniting with a group of long-lost friends.

“It’s kind of like when you hear a song again, and you know where you were when you first heard it,” Nachamie says. “It’s the same thing with the Charlie Brown characters; you know where you were in your life.”

For fans, the characters immediately conjure up certain emotions — the imaginative Snoopy slipping into the persona of the Red Baron; brassy bully Lucy mercilessly taunting Charlie; the philosophical, blankie-toting Linus; and Schroeder, the Beethoven-adoring piano prodigy. They all may be portrayed as small children (with the exception of one beagle), but they speak to all ages.

“I’ve never thought of Charlie Brown as a kids show. I’ve thought of it as a generational show in that parents have one memory and one understanding of it and kids will have another,” Nachamie says. “I’ve had adults that come see the production bring their kids at first, and then all of a sudden they’re bringing their friends.”

Nachamie brings his background in sketch comedy to the musical, offering episodes that track a year in lives of the characters. Kids might enjoy the familiarity of reliving the start of the school year, while adults may identify with scenes on the little league field.

Schulz “wanted to show that, no matter how much we age by the clock, all the factors of still trying to fit in and still trying to be an optimist, plus worry and depression and hope, that all of that never changes,” Nachamie says. “That’s kind of what makes it timeless.”

The cellphone-free Peanuts crew has remained relevant even while its audience has advanced so much technologically. That’s one thing that struck Nachamie when he looked at the musical for the first time since directing it eight years ago.

“I kind of sat down and thought, ‘Wow, the world’s changed.’ But then I realized these characters are still out there, and my friends said, ‘Oh, yeah, my kid has the iPhone app.’ ”

Feb. 22-March 18. Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. www.olneytheatre.org. $26-$54.

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