All The World's A Stage For Vacationing Kids

During the second act, Graeme Browning tried in vain to wake her 7-year-old daughter. Anna and the King of Siam were about to launch into their signature. "Shall We Dance," number and Browning had paid dearly -- $140 for a pair of tickets -- for the privilege of introducing her child to the wonders of the Broadway stage. But Lowry slept on, exhausted by her first trip to New York and blissfully unaware of the first-rate performance unfolding before her, as well as her mother's chagrin.

Some nights, the youngest of the 17 children in the production have trouble staying awake too, confessed John Curless. Actor Curless plays the captain of the ship that brings Anna and her young son to Siam, where she becomes governess to the king's children. The production, after all, lasts more than two hours.

Other children in the audience, including my 5-year-old, grew fidgety or even frightened by some of the costumes and sets, beautiful though they were. My 10-year-old, however, was mesmerized.

Jeff McCarthy is used to that reaction. He plays the Beast in the Broadway production of "Beauty and the Beast" and has weathered more than his share of bawling preschoolers. "I think 5 is a safe age to bring kids to the theater," says McCarthy, himself the father of two young daughters. "And talk to them ahead of time about what they're going to see."

One thing you don't need to worry about: If you choose to take in a play on vacation this summer, your kids will have plenty of company in the audience, whether at a production of Shakespeare play in Ashland, Oregon, a musical in suburban Chicago or on Broadway.

"I can't figure it out," confesses Debby Boone, who is performing as the bad girl Rizzo in "Grease" on Broadway and looks out at a sea of youngsters each night.

Even Boone says she thinks twice about the expense before taking her four kids to a play. But high ticket prices aren't keeping kids out of theaters this summer. Nearly 10 million tickets were sold for Broadway productions last year, reports the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau, and performers and producers alike in New York and elsewhere say they're noticing many more children in the house.

Perhaps it's the number of productions touring nationally and those on Broadway such as "Big," "Grease" and "Beauty and the Beast" with tremendous kid appeal. Perhaps it's because today's parents are concerned their kids aren't getting enough exposure to the arts in school.

Mother of three Susan Cohn has another explanation. "Taking my kids to see plays is like getting them to eat Indian food," explains the Connecticut marketing manager. "I want to expose them to something I love. It's an experience we can share."

"Just don't be surprised if they don't love it as much as you think they should for the big bucks it cost," cautions Deborah Birnbaum, whose two kids weren't thrilled by the Washington, D.C. production of "Beauty and the Beast." "You can't predict what they'll like."

Is it worth the bother and the expense? Absolutely, insists Jed Bernstein, executive director of the League of American Theaters and Producers, the nonprofit national trade organization of the commercial theater industry.

"In the age of CD-ROM and the Internet, there is nothing more gratifying for a parent to see than their child mesmerized by live theater. Watching live actors on stage can not be duplicated and children are the first in the audience to realize how special that is."

(Families planning a visit to New York can call 800-525-BWAY or 212-563-BWAY to get the rundown on each show. It's also possible to purchase tickets. Check out the Family Pack deal for some performances of "Grease": $125 for the best four seats available at the time of purchase.)

For those planning to bring star-struck kids to New York this August, the New York theater community is launching Camp Broadway. The day-camp program is designed to take 10- to 16-year-olds backstage, where they will do everything from talk to performers and producers to attend acting workshops taught by NYU theater professors. (The immersion doesn't come cheap. It costs $900 and has limited enrollment. Call 212-388-7331.

"The pilot program is just the beginning of the theater community's effort to bring more kids inside that stage door," says Dori Berinstein, one of the producers of "Big" and the originator of this project. Already, she says, plans are underway for Saturday workshops in the fall, as well as for programs at theaters around the country.

Of course, it's not necessary to fork over big bucks to introduce the kids to live theater. Take them to a community, high school or university production in the town you're visiting on vacation. One hint: A play that features children in the cast likely will go over well.

Wherever you go, urges Debby Boone, give the kids a quick a quick pre-theater lesson in how to behave in an adult environment. It helps if they're well rested, have full stomachs and have visited the bathroom before the curtain goes up.

Don't despair if the kids complain they're bored either. The day after Lowry Browning slept through the second act of "The King and I," she couldn't stop talking about the play -- all the way from New York to Maryland. Lowry was too busy reading her souvenir program, in fact, to complain about the long hours in the car.

Those tickets, her mom knew then, were worth every dollar.

(c) 1996, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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