Backstage: ‘Big’ news

September 18, 2012

In the world premiere of the Theater for Young Audiences’ version of “Big” — surely you’ve seen the 1988 movie, in which Tom Hanks plays “Heart and Soul” and “Chopsticks” on that giant toy piano — the roles of kids will actually be played by kids.

But not just any kids. “These are diehard theater kids who are committed, and their families are committed, to their performance careers,” said Michael Bobbit, ­producing artistic director of ­Adventure Theatre MTC.

The five young cast members range in age from 12 to 15 and were selected from about 100 applicants in a year-long audition process. “You’re looking at true pros in young bodies,” said Bobbit.

Adventure Theatre and Musical Theater Center merged earlier this year to create Adventure Theatre MTC. While Musical Theater Center mainly held all-student performances with an adult cameo every now and then, Adventure offered professional productions of children’s shows. For the Adventure half of Adventure Theatre MTC, this is the first time since 2008 that a show features age-appropriate casting.

“There were times when we would do as many as seven a week,” said Bobbit of matinees in his time at Adventure Theatre. “It just became impossible to hire kids that could get off of school.”


Marley McKay as Young Josh and Greg Maheu as Josh in Adventure Theatre - MTC's production of “Big, The Musical.” (Bruce Douglas/Bruce Douglas)

Of the five kids in “Big,” two are home-schooled, and the rest are really, really busy. And they’re doing plenty of heavy dramatic lifting: There are only six adults in the cast.

The kid-friendly version of “Big,” adapted by Bobbit and Jeff Frank of First Stage, has whittled the Broadway show down from 2.5 hours to 70 minutes and eliminated some iffy language choices.

“I’m so curious to see how this works,” Bobbit said. “I think kids are going to be so glued into seeing kids who look like them on stage. . . . There’s an innocence and a heart to it, a simplicity to it, that I find really delightful. ”

Friday to Oct. 28, 7300 Mac­Arthur Blvd., Glen Echo, 301-634-2270, adventuretheatre-mtc.org.

‘Fly’ set to soar at Ford’s

The Tuskegee Airmen were a World War II pursuit squadron composed entirely of African Americans. Before 1940, African Americans were prohibited from flying for the U.S. military. Disproving the theory of the era that claimed blacks lacked the courage and intelligence required to fly airplanes, the Tuskegee Airmen flew throughout World War II, trailblazing (or, more appropriately, sky-blazing) the way for an integration of the military.

It’s a good story. But when Ricardo Khan, director of “Fly” at Ford’s Theatre, saw a photo of the Tuskegee Airmen on the wall of a colleague’s house, Khan had no idea who they were.

“It just hit me: Number one, I’m supposed to know about these people and I don’t,” Khan said. “They’re part of the celebration of our legacy . . . because of the doors that they not just opened for us, but kicked open through their own perseverance and intelligence and courage and passion.”

“Fly,” the second play in Ford’s Lincoln Legacy Project, is based on the experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen. So Khan brought in Roscoe Brown, a former Tuskegee Airman with whom he’d previously worked. (Brown was a consultant on “Lonely Eagles” at Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey, which Khan also directed.)

Brown, a D.C. native who earned his wings in 1944, does this sort of consulting a lot, most recently for George Lucas’s film “Red Tails.” “My task was to look at the script and make sure that it generally followed the historical narrative,” Brown said. “When it came to the actors themselves, [I had to] give them some suggestions as to how we talked, how we moved, how pilots moved.”

Khan said: “What I knew for sure was that I didn’t want the piece to feel like history. The goal was to take this story onto the stage and create an extremely visceral experience.”

“It is a unique story,” Brown said. “But it does need to be told in a way that combines the action and excitement of war together with the struggle for equality and civil rights. . . . The Tuskegee Airmen is not specifically about war. It’s about a struggle to overcome the prejudice and obstacles that we face.”

Brown came to the early days of rehearsal for “Fly” in August. “The greatest of experiences happened on the second day of rehearsal,” Khan said. “I put the cast in a triangular formation behind Dr. Brown [on folding chairs], and Dr. Brown took them through a few flights.” He simulated action, shouting out commands — Break right! Bank left! — and “just telling a story,” Khan said. “You could see him seeing the sky, feeling the wind.”

Friday to Oct. 21, 511 10th St. NW, fords.org, 202-347-4833.

An unconventional Eliza

“I’ve always felt that ‘My Fair Lady’ is a universal story, and the role of Eliza is one that could be played by actors of many different races,” said Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith, who will direct the musical at Arena this season. Manna Nichols will be making her Arena debut in the titular role. “Manna is Asian,” said Smith. “When we went back and did the research [about London in 1912] . . . it was a huge melting pot in London at that time, so it’s very exciting to be able to have Eliza as a person of color.”

Nicholas Rodriguez, whose most recent turn in Arena’s “Oklahoma!” was also under Smith’s direction, will portray Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Smith, who also directed Rodriguez in “A Light in the Piazza,” said, “He’s very strong onstage.” And perhaps even more import, “he’s a real heartthrob.”

Benedict Campbell, who plays Henry Higgins in the production, is a Canadian actor with whom Smith has worked twice at the Shaw Festival. “He knows and understands [George Bernard] Shaw’s language like nobody that I’ve ever heard before. . . . Since ‘My Fair Lady’ is an adaptation of Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion,’ his use of language in the production is superb.”

Nov. 2-Jan. 6, 1101 Sixth St. SW, 202-488-3300, arenastage.org.

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