"TWO AFRICAN TALES: `KALULU AND HIS MONEY FARM' & `RUMPLESTILTSKIN,' " Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis national tour, City Rep/Utah Theater, Friday evening; one performance only.
Good children's theater is more than just cute fairytales or musicals with simple lyrics. When it's done right, it can be an adventurous - and educational - journey.City Rep's Utah Theater was packed with youngsters Friday night - kids who were anxious to see one one of the country's most innovative troupes - the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis.
It didn't really matter that show was delayed more than an hour. After all, these were African "bedtime stories" - such as African mothers and fathers would tell their children before tucking them in for the night.
Just prior to the first of the "Two African Tales," narrator Lester Purry, with his joyful, resonant voice, told the crowd that "everyone has his own way of telling a story. You have your way and I have mine." Then he invited the excited youngsters and their parents to pretend they were in the deepest part of the jungle. It's nighttime and time for some storytelling.
Despite the delay, the moment the house lights dimmed, the children were thoroughly mesmerized by the colorful costumes, the energetic choreography and the the authentic settings.
Dialogue during the performance was in Swahili - one of nearly 700 languages spoken in Africa - but through dance and pantomime, along with Purry's translations - it was easy to follow the storylines.
The first was a genuine African tale, about a group of animals and their king, who gives each of them a variety of seeds to plant, with the stern warning that he'd be back in a year to collect the harvest.
The king, however, isn't quite prepared for the hare-brained scheme of Kalulu, a boastful rabbit. Kalulu tells the king he'll plant a bagful of money on his money farm.
Of course, what he really does is take his wife, Mrs. Kalulu, for a whirlwind shopping spree. Eventually, after putting the king off for three years (Hey, it takes a long, l-o-n-g time to harvest a crop of money. You think the stuff grows on trees?) Kalulu is forced to face the music.
Suffice it to say, Kalulu has a couple of narrow brushes before he learns a couple of valuable lessons - that lying about something won't solve the problem at hand, and that you can't squander money that isn't yours to begin with and not expect to pay the piper at some point in the future.
A couple of good moral lessons told in less than half an hour the old-fashioned African way.
And there weren't even any commercials.
The second tale of the evening (preceded by a short Swahili sing-along and language lesson to give the cast a chance to change costumes) was a tale more familiar to the crowd - the story of "Rumplestiltskin."
In addition to the narrator, one performer who was central to both shows was Bruce Thompson as the Ju Ju Man, whose special brand of African magic added to the authenticity of the delightful stories. The Ju Ju Man is sort of like a circus ringmaster, choreographing the various aspects of the on-stage performance.
In "Rumplestiltskin," Thompson took the role of both the Ju Ju Man and the tale's title character - the devilish little man who helps the miller's daughter spin straw into gold so that she can prove she is extraordinary enough to marry the king.
The production leans heavily on dance. It seemed to fall more into the category of ballet than theater, but it was an artistic experience that was enthralling. The small cast (10 performers and two musicians) was thoroughly professional.
Even though they'd been kept waiting for more than an hour, and for many of the youngsters it was past their normal bedtime, they all seemed to be fascinated by the stories.
And the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis proved that good theater for kids can be exciting, fascinating and educational.
Even when it goes into overtime.