Dallas Children's Theater
Directed by Robyn Flatt
Musical Direction and Accompaniment ? S-Ankh Rasa
Choreography - Michelle Nicole Gibson
Set Design - Randel Wright
Lighting Design - Linda Blase and Melissa Cashion
Costume Design - Barbara Cox
Properties Design - Jen Spillane and Tish Mussey
Rick L. Spivey - Storyteller
Calvin Roberts - Villager 1/Hungry Boy/Laughing Tree/King
Ashley Duplechain - Villager 2/Old Woman/Laughing Tree/Puppeteer
Ivan Jones - Mufaro
Charli Armstrong - Manyara
Rhianna Mack - Nyasha
Reviewed Performance 6/24/2012
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
So many children of this generation seem to find their entertainment diversion sitting in front of televisions and computers or hunched over smartphones and tablets, chatting, texting and gaming. And while there are a multitude of books and stories on the internet they could choose from, to me there never was or will be anything better than to sit quietly in a big chair or high in a tree, reading a real book made of paper. Better yet is to have a parent or adult read a great story at bedtime to get the children off to sleep. The love of a good story or fairy tale sets the imagination free.
Looking back at the classic tales from Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, C.S. Lewis and so many more, they are all great adventures that also hold social and moral lessons told in a fun way. One of the most universal themes found around the world is that of the neglected yet kind, loving child who finally receives the appreciation she/he deserves. In this part of the world, we know it as the story of Cinderella. But in Africa, a similar Zimbabwe folktale was collected by G.M. Theal, along with others, and published in 1895 as "Kaffir Folktales". Award winning children's author/illustrator John Steptoe researched African history and culture to write Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale almost one hundred years later. Receiving the prestigious Caldecott Award, his work has been acknowledged as a breakthrough as it inspires African American children to respect their ancestral origins. Steptoe's book illustrations are warm, rich paintings of the beauty of the land and people of his own ancestry. This tale in which kindness, generosity, honesty and love are rewarded and selfishness is punished rings so true today with daily news articles on school bullying and children's lack of self-esteem and confidence.
Taking inspiration from those paintings and with a stage adaptation by Karen Abbott, Dallas Children's Theater presents a wonderfully directed, choreographed and acted touring production of Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale. Coming back to the Dallas area during their whirlwind National Tour of 56 cities so far, reaching over 125,000 people, this story is told with traditional African song, dance and drumming. Steeped in African culture and a multi-cultural favorite amongst children from pre-school to third grade, this story is one to be enjoyed by all ages.
A distinguished and revered member of a Zimbabwe village, Mufaro has two beautiful daughters, Manyara and Nyasha. In the Shona language, Mufaro means 'happy man', Manyara means 'ashamed' and Nyasha means 'mercy'. And in true Cinderella form, Manyara is always selfish, bad-tempered and spoiled while Nyasha is kind, considerate and generous. A messenger brings word that the King is inviting all of the 'Most Worthy and Beautiful Daughters in the Land to appear before him'. Not able to choose between his daughters, Mufaro declares only the king should decide. Of course Manyara believes she is the only one the king could possibly want and sets out before the rest to make certain she will be the one chosen. She and the others encounter mysterious sights and sounds that test their courage and strength of spirit. And like all good stories or tales, the truly good of heart are rewarded while the mean-spirited are given their just desserts.
As I remember, usually when I walk into the Baker Theatre at DCT, the stage lighting is up, generating curiosity in the squirmy young audience. But this time the stage was dark and somewhat ominous though just as alluring. When the audience lights went to complete black, the audience -ooh-ed in anticipation. And just when you thought Randel Wright could not possibly outdo himself, the up lights revealed he designed a simple, practical touring, magical set of reed back panels, rolling sculptures carved with symbols and nature spirit faces, a fallen tree trunk and more. Tall torches, earlier hidden amongst the set pieces, suddenly went aflame with silk strips, fan and inner lighting - all of it was mesmerizing. Nature was the theme here with warm browns, greens and gold, and the wavy cutouts on the back panels could easily have been birds, bamboo leaves or water, all parts of the many locations of the story. The set pieces were moved around by the actors in an intricate dance and the boulder slab went from a lookout, to a banquet table to the king's bed with easy imagination.
Lighting for this musical was most important to express both location and mood. As the jungle birds and insects sang at the beginning, a center panel went iridescent green, representing the lush vegetation. The dim forest and even darker grove of trees were dark and eerie. The river scene had aspects of blue and green and the king's palace was broadly lit in red, including those torches. Linda Blase and Melissa Cashion designed with rich color filters and piercing spotlighting and all of it was resplendent.
I love simplicity and ingenuity when it comes to props and both Jen Spillane and Tish Mussey, for tour purposes, kept their choices practical and succinct and every one of them worked wonderfully in telling the tale. Flat hand held tribal masks allowed actors to play multiple roles. Black eye masks helped you imagine their invisibility or character change. A flexible snake was moved by hand, wrapped around shoulders or in trees and parrots flew with the aid of an actor's arm and pulled strings. A long narrow cloth of blues and greens was waved up and down for the river crossing. Shallow baskets held imaginary food or grain, and then there were the drums - oh, the drums and the other instruments.
Local composer and musician, S-Ankh Rasa, originated a score of majesty, beauty and overwhelming joy. Part traditional African, part reggae, with a dab of hip hop and a swipe of samba, the music was infectious and a huge part of the story. The theme song, 'Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters' hypnotized with its simple verse and rhythm. Using recorded orchestration, actors played hand held djembe and dundun drums and a wood block (the name I should remember, having taken drumming). I also thought I heard a distant recorded akogo, a thumb piano. The many other songs were not named in the playbill but all assisted the story and were enjoyable. To expand the grandeur, some of the singing was supported by recorded vocals and accompanied choruses.
Many children's musicals have easy songs and even easier dances but in Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, Michelle Nicole Gibson's choreography almost stole the show. She put her actors through the paces and created intricate numbers that rivaled many professional African dancers. No one held back as they threw themselves into the magnificent traditional dances with a bit of hip hop inserted. Broadly smiling all the while, it was apparent they loved to dance.
The beautifully patterned fabrics of Africa were freely used by Barbara Cox to make up the costumes for the many characters of this musical. Contrasting colors for tunics and long skirts made the daughters look like tropical flowers. More muted colors adorned the villagers and simple overlay pieces changed the characters easily. Father Mufaro's costume was freely taken from the colors and pattern of an African antelope and the actor's long legs and leaping stride made it obvious who he was supposed to represent. His pillbox-like kofia hat was an ingenious blend of shells and fabric. The proverbial happy ending scene had the king and queen in lightweight long tunics, pants and skirt of white.
Each of the six actors in Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters simply shone with pride and joy in playing their characters. Both Ashley Duplechain and Calvin Roberts showed their fun playing arguing Villagers, the sage Old Woman, mysterious Hungry Boy, and Laughing Trees. Duplechain made the parrots soar and Roberts helped the friendly snake slither. Each drummed masterfully, sang and danced exuberantly and was simply joyous.
The Storyteller narrates in between scenes. Using his dundun drum and beater stick like a trumpet, he announces and explains what's about to happen so the story's lessons aren't missed. Rick L. Spivey made the perfect storyteller, easily likeable with a rubbery face contorted into laughable, funny expressions. His king's Messenger was whiny and hilariously pathetic, and the children laughed at his antics.
Mufaro was indeed a 'happy man' due to Ivan Jones' interpretation. Very tall and very slender, his every move was therefore exaggerated and majestic to watch. He carried a long staff with tin clapper on top so that each step was accompanied by clanging bell-like music. Jones was a fabulous dancer and I simply could not figure how he tucked in his long legs in order to execute those low to the ground moves. Having played the same character in DCT's 2008-2009 tour, his joy in playing Mufaro again fairly illuminated from his body. I could have watched him all day.
Charli Armstrong also returns to the role of Manyara from the earlier tour and found inspiration in meeting Steptoe's own daughter, Bweela, his inspiration for creating both Manyara and Nyasha. 'While Manyara starts off so mean and selfish, Miss Bwella motivates me to play (her) transformation, becoming humble . . . and gaining a sense of dignity.' Armstrong easily took on the bad temperament of Manyara, belittling her sister, lying to her father, thinking only of herself. She was so mean, she was funny, and the audience readily laughed as she got into trouble. Though her transformation was completed rather quickly in the musical's final scene, it was good for the children to see both aspects of her and Armstrong delivered the mean-spirited girl with a vengeance.
Nyasha is the quiet, lonely daughter who attempts to keep the peace within her family and enjoys being with nature and animals to forget her sister's meanness and her father's inattention. Rhianna Mack's grace in portraying Nyasha was beautiful to watch. Elegant and slender, she floated around the stage, sang sweetly and danced with freedom. The contrast between her and Armstrong perfectly suited the story's theme.
You may have noticed I used the word 'joy' several times and Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters was just that, a joyous musical and a joy to see. The wonderful music and dance of Africa made my heart soar and I know I broadly smiled the entire time. During the final wedding scene, the Messenger thanked each village (audience stage left, right and center) for coming and also the village of Dallas! Then they all sang the theme song again as the audience clapped along.
Dallas Children's Theater is one of the top five children's theater companies in the U.S. and the only one to tour nationally. Still on tour, I am so glad they made a pit stop back home so the DFW area can enjoy this classic tale of good overcoming bad and the victory of love. Director and DCT's Artistic Director Robyn Flatt said it best. 'This is your last chance to see a stunning show. Even if you've already seen it, don't miss your chance to come back. This is a play you can see again and again and be lifted to exhilarating heights every time.' I encourage the young and the young at heart to get out of the heat, go to the Rosewood Center for Family Arts at DCT and let the music, the songs and this version of the Cinderella story cool your mind and body and warm your heart and soul.
MUFARO'S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTERS: AN AFRICAN TALE
Dallas Children's Theater
Dallas, TX 75231
Plays through July 15th
Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays-Sundays at 1:30 and 4:30 pm
Additional performances are Tuesday, July 3rd at 1:30 pm; Tuesday, July 10th at 7:30 pm; Wednesday, July 11th at 7:30 pm; Thursday, July 5th at 11:30 am and 1:30 pm; Thursday, July 12th at 7:30 pm.
Tickets are $20-$26 Adult, $18-$24 Youth and $16-$20 senior.
Last week Tuesday-Fri