It happens every year about this time. Sweet little tykes who are warm and loving children the rest of the year become cold-eyed, avaricious consumers wallowing in seasonal commercialism. Or at least that's the way it may seem to beleaguered parents torn between wishing to satisfy their kids' desire for the latest hot products and the need to foster a healthy attitude about the relative value of material things. This holiday season, there's help for parents grappling with the problem, and it's coming courtesy of the Kennedy Center's brand-new Family Theater, which will make its debut Friday with the world premiere of "Alice," a stage adaptation of actress Whoopi Goldberg's 1992 children's book of the same name.
"This play is about values for kids," said director Shirley Jo Finney. "It's an urban fairy tale that speaks to today." Alice is a bright, feisty girl who dreams of being rich. She finds herself on a journey to a big city, accompanied by a semi-invisible rabbit, to claim a valuable prize. Along the way, she encounters a variety of unique characters and challenges that change her perceptions of what is truly valuable.
Recommended for ages 5 and older, this "play with music" also features dance. The music includes a hip-hop sequence in which Alice, played by George Washington University graduate Audra Alise Polk, and some of the city folks she meets move off the stage and into the audience. Parents familiar with the book will discover that playwright Kim Hines has changed it somewhat, adding characters and intensifying the dramatic arc to make it work better as a live presentation. But the themes remain intact, Hines said, noting: "What we show is that relationships with people are more important than money, how much you make or what you spend it on. Alice finds out that her friends are very valuable to her, and that's what we've gotten away from in society."
The message may be serious, but the presentation is playful and stylized. Finney uses 6-foot-tall letters spelling the name "Alice" as the production's major set pieces, with the design inspired by the collage technique developed by artist Romare Bearden.
"When children come into the theater, they're going to see these bright, wonderful colors, and it's going to remind them of a jungle gym set," Finney said. "You can climb on the letters, they can turn or be laid down. At first they'll think, 'Oh, how fun.' Then as Alice is walking in her dream, it feels lonely and scary, and the letters start moving by themselves."
Located in the space formerly occupied by the American Film Institute theater, the $9 million, 324-seat Family Theater is a state-of-the-art facility that will present three Kennedy Center-commissioned world premieres this season in addition to "Alice," along with 250 music, dance and storytelling events annually.
The next play in the space will be the hip-hop-oriented "Brave No World" in January. These performances mark the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy Center's "Imagination Celebration" series.
The theater features a proscenium with a thrust stage that reaches out to the audience with extensions along the floor level of seating. These ramps are important in children's shows, where audience participation is a frequent component. But with the walls of the theater covered by bland cherry wood panels, and the formal seating eventually rising stadium-style, this seems more like a typical adult venue than many of the brightly colored, graphic-intensive children's theaters with informal seating. That was a deliberate decision, according to Darrell Ayers, the Kennedy Center's vice president for education.
"We want to give children a true theater experience," Ayers said. "But whether you're 3 years old or 30, there's good sightlines, and everybody will be able to see." The seats were planned with children in mind, however, covered with durable, multicolored fabric and designed to be quiet as kids pop up and down during performances.
"Alice" was a natural choice for the first show because the source material is a book and part of the Kennedy Center's mission is to encourage reading.
Referring to elementary schools, Ayers said 37 percent of public schools in the District no longer have a music or visual arts teacher. "I think it's important for institutions like the Kennedy Center, that have the resources, to provide opportunities for young people to have experiences in the performing arts," he said.
"Alice," meanwhile, is typical of much of children's theater in that it involves a journey, which director Finney describes as an archetypal test. "It teaches self-identity and what your relationship is to the world," she said during a recent rehearsal with her energetic, multicultural cast. "In the journey, you're asked to do something outside of your comfort zone, something that is the unknown. Each challenge you overcome gives you strength; it's about having to come outside and face your own fear, which we all do every day, whether it's a test in school or just having to walk to school and navigate past the bad guys."
That's a gift that can stay with a child long after the Christmas commercials have faded from the airwaves and the latest toys, so devoutly anticipated, have been forgotten.
"ALICE" Friday through Jan. 2 at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. For information or to reserve tickets, visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.