The 32nd annual International Children’s Festival is in full throttle. Buses are unloading hoards of children as colourful artists stroll through the tent city along the Sturgeon River.
Neither vampire mosquitoes nor threatening rain clouds are deterring children from getting out and having fun, fun, fun.
Running until Saturday, June 1, the festival hosts a diversity of world-class entertainers from around the globe. There are 10 mainstage shows that range from dancing, puppetry and storytelling to mime, music and physical theatre.
To help sort through the many choices, the Gazette has provided abbreviated reviews of most mainstage shows.
Tickets are $9 for children and $11 for adults. Call the Arden box office at 780-459-1542 or online at www.ticketmaster.ca.
Standard General Tent, Ages: four and over, 3 out of 5 stars
One of Canada’s hippest children’s entertainers, The Kerplunks are three-time Juno nominees that deliver, high-energy colourful performances.
So far Juno judges have tapped them as the bridesmaid, never the bride. But several classes of young elementary school children attending the International Children’s Festival definitely gave them the thumbs up.
The Gabriola Island quartet fuses musical genres such as jazz, folk, reggae, blues and rap into a smorg that gets kids dancing, jumping, skipping and shakin’ their bootie.
The band’s spirited acoustic songs have a smooth, easy-going West Coast vibe, simple rhyming lyrics, catchy melodies and clever harmonies.
Fronting the band is Tina Jones, a powerful singer with a robust voice that skims the rafters. In addition, she plays trumpet and is supported by Dinah D (upright bass), Aaron Cadwaladr (guitar), and Phil Wipper (drums).
Together they get into the groove performing infectious tunes such as Bunk Beds Rule, Dog Toy, Go Bananas, Gumboots and b-i-c-y-c-l-e. Every song has an interactive element – waving arms, stomping feet or jumping up and down – but most of the kids went wild for Dino Rap, a poppin’ rap number that encouraged them to roar like T-Rex.
For some of the children, this rhythmic 40-minute show is just too short. Fortunately, the band gives away stickers at concert’s end prompting a mad rush to the stage.
– Anna Borowiecki
Windmill Theatre, CN Stage, Ages: under 7, 4 out of 5 stars
Children’s theatre as we know it today didn’t exist when I was preschooler. But if Grug had been touring, I’m sure I would have fallen in love with this haystack shaped hand puppet.
Presented by Windmill Theatre from Australia, Grug is a classic that every Oz child knows by heart. In this 30-minute adaptation, the even-tempered creature with a big nose and equally big feet receives several packages. Each contains a surprise from garden seeds to a gigantic magic apple to a whiz-fast soccer ball.
Each package introduces a small vignette in Grug’s life. The mini tales are pretty basic with a minimum of words and are woven together as series of funny lessons the mute puppet learns.
Jonathan Oxlade’s set design is an incredibly clever and well thought out rolling hill. Throughout it are numerous hidey-holes with doors that when opened reveal Grug’s garden, his fishing hole, and an underground burrow complete with a detailed stone fireplace.
Matt Crook, Ellen Steele and Hamish Fletcher are the three-member troupe of puppeteers that introduce Grug’s friends – a hungry worm and a soccer-mad snake, and keep the story moving along at a cheerful pace.
At the end, kids are invited to line up for a close-up view of Grug and his brightly coloured home. This is an excellent production for introducing children to theatre.
– Anna Borowiecki
Drums United, Save-On-Foods Stage, All ages, 4 out of 5 stars
When Drums United rumbled towards the explosive finale of World of Rhythm, one patron attending the International Children’s Festival whispered, “Wow.”
That one word said it all.
One of the festival mandates is to promote cultural diversity and this one act brought the world into one room.
Seven percussionists from seven different countries pounded skin-tight drums with a synchronized mastery rarely seen in these parts.
Swiftly switching from drum to drum, the percussionists were also extremely adept at changing cultural charts from Latin and Middle Eastern to African and European.
Led by Holland’s Lucas van Merwiji, the troupe also included Surinam’s Gianna Tam, van Merwijk’s daughter, Germany’s Mathias Holzner, Venezuela’s Marco Toro, and Senegal’s Pape Thiam and Mousse Pathe Mbaye.
The format of Drums United starts with a solo from each drummer sandwiched in between ensemble numbers, a symbolic gesture that promotes inclusion for all. Merwijk’s daughter Tam also stepped up to the microphone on several occasions delivering a powerful belt that earned thunderous applause.
The pace was blistering and gathered momentum with each passing number so much so that by the end of the 45-minute performance, the sheer physicality of playing created a sheen of sweat on players’ faces.
The expressive range of the musicians was phenomenal and all in all it was a good reminder of the power of drums and how they speak to our heart in any language.
– Anna Borowiecki
St. Albert 50+ Club, Ages: five and under, 5 out of 5 stars
The musical stylings of the Deep South delighted kids, parents and teachers during an author and musician’s performance at the International Children’s Festival.
Eric Litwin, author of the first four Pete the Cat books, should be renamed “Georgia Diamond” for the many facets he showed Thursday. He read one of his books, played guitar, played harmonica, sang, danced and was no slouch at comedy either.
Pete the Cat, the first volumes selling around 1,000,000 copies each, is a big deal in the early childhood literature world, illustrated by the packed-full 50+ Club. Litwin, who wrote the Pete the Cat books based on artist James Dean’s character, said St. Albert has been a blast. “Going good, enjoying the festival,” he said a few moments before his show. “Lovely audiences. Having a good time.”
While Pete the Cat books have spent over 58 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, Litwin said he thinks the appeal is basic because the books have two simple and important goals.
“My overriding message is, one, I’m very interested in early and beginning readers,” said the former schoolteacher.
“And second, I kind of have a positive message in my books. It’s all good,” he said.
Starting his show, Litwin, from Atlanta, Georgia, jumped right into rocking the crowd with a typical southern mix of rock, blues and country, fronted by ever-popular acoustic guitar and backed by a good dose of Georgia harmonica.
While he got active with the crowd singing and dancing, Litwin’s highlight was the reading of Pete the Cat and his Four Groovy Buttons. After Pete dons his favourite yellow shirt, he tragically loses his four buttons one by one.
As Litwin got kids and adults into singing along with Pete’s lyrics, he had a great message for everyone, whether they’re six, 36 or 60 years old.
“It just goes to show, stuff will come and stuff will go,” said Litwin. “Do we cry? No. We keep on singing.”
– Stu Salkeld
Nuages en Pantalon Compagie de CrĂ©ation
Ă©cole Father Jan School
Ages five and over
3.5 out of 5 stars
This is a play that tugs at the heartstrings while talking about how people of different abilities are still beautiful in so many other ways.
Valerie can’t walk and talk as her brother does. Her physical disability requires her to use a wheelchair. Her arms and legs are fidgety, and her face is contorted with involuntary muscular contractions. Her only vocalization is an otherwise unintelligible “Aaaaaah” sound. Her devoted brother understands her most of the time and wants to give her a good birthday present but doesn’t know what she wants. He dreams of her dancing so he gets her a music box with a ballerina, and she grabs for it.
Thus begins an imaginary interaction with the real life toy dancer who helps the boy and Valerie to both realize their dreams while showing the rest of us the importance of praising strangeness and the unfamiliar while honouring the fragility within us all. While the show gets a bit bogged down in the middle with the impetuous ballerina character, it still comes around with a solid positive message to all at the end.
It’s also a lively, creative performance with excellent use of shadows, props, projections and dance to tell a captivating, tearjerking story. Kudos especially to the actress who plays Valerie for an amazing performance.
– Scott Hayes
Standard General Tent
Ages five and over
4.5 out of 5 stars
No one, but no one spins those funky beats quite like the explosive 3rd Street Beat gang. Their hip-hop freezes are stunning, the footwork dynamic and the power moves electrifying.
The eight energetic b-boys and b-girls definitely raise the bar for street dance, propelling popping and locking to new heights in a specially commissioned show for the International Children’s Festival.
They move and groove through the history of street dance starting with its ’70s funk roots to the present day represented by the extraordinary Shadow Twins.
From James Brown and Aretha Franklin to Michael Jackson and beyond, it’s a history lesson revealing the positive spin of one of this century’s most important dance genres.
Although there is a strong educational component, it never feels like a classroom seminar, in large part due to the mesmerizing athleticism, passion and precision of the dancers. They contort into positions the body was never designed for, and like the Energizer bunny, they never run out of power.
One audience favourite is the special appearance of the King of Pop dressed in his trademark fedora, sparkly jacket and white socks sliding across the stage performing Moonwalk.
And when the Shadow Twins step out from behind the curtains, the audience roared, clapped their hands and stamped their feet at the snappy, mirror image character work that mashes together the light-hearted Charlie Chaplin and Three Stooges.
In addition to all the tricks throughout this 50-minute show, a delightful, clever hoax is played on the audience at the finale.
– Anna Borowiecki
4.5 out of 5 stars
If you are looking for a show that will utterly charm the young at heart of every age, then Imago Theatre’s ZooZoo is a very good bet.
In their debut show at the International Children’s Festival, Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad have created a series of short vignettes using mask and mime theatre.
Their magical menagerie houses one-of-a-kind creatures: sleep deprived hippos, a snooty anteater waiter, clumsy frogs, lumbering polar bears, trapped cats, acrobatic earthworms and super competitive penguins. And then there’s the giant bully accordion and a humungous paper bag that leans like the Tower of Pisa.
Make no mistake, this is some of finest mime and mask theatre ever presented in St. Albert. Without using a word of dialogue, the wonderfully talented troupe of five performers take us into this whimsical world of these surprisingly human animals.
Each creature has its own personal identity. Every gesture, every move – whether turning a head, flicking a tongue, or butting a friend – is drenched with personality, eccentricity and humour.
There are so many funny nuggets, it is difficult to pick any one highlight. The performance provides an enchanted evening of non-stop laughter starting from two hippos in bed fighting over the single blanket to a family of majestic polar bears lumbering across the snow-blown tundra to party, to penguins fighting over a game of musical chairs.
The actors, who never speak a single word, are supported by a quirky soundscape of original music. It is satisfying theatre at its best and you will leave the Arden Theatre with a smile on your face.
– Anna Borowiecki
Ă©cole Father Jan School
Ages five and up
4 out of 5 stars
It takes a great craftsman to overlay classical gems into funky hip-hop beats and make them sound ear-friendly and catchy.
Whether it’s a movie score, a tango improvisation or a popular classical score, the award-winning string trio of Infinitus nails it. They are always on top of their game.
Inspired by what is new and fresh, these three classically trained musicians – John Littlejohn on violin and brothers Alex (cello) and Anthony Cheung (viola) – strive to make classical music hip and relevant.
From the moment they step onto the black box stage, these natural performers endeavour to have fun. Talking to the audience, leaning into each other, and bursting into spontaneous laughter, they quickly develop a friendly rapport and intimacy with the audience.
And with a level of musicianship that is perfectly at home in a chamber orchestra, they dazzle with their fulminating string work.
The trio kicks off with movie themes and a traditional arrangement of Flight of the Bumblebee. Shifting towards Two Birds and a Hippo, they perform this Latin melody with an edgy industrial buzz popping, clicking and whistling through their mouths.
The string trio really appears to be in tune with the crowd’s numerous youngsters, playing the themes for Dora the Explorer and Spongebob Squarepants.
And their calibre never wavers, whether playing Mission Impossible and Indiana Jones or the William Tell Overture.
In addition to their superb musicianship and friendly personalities, these three friends have a vibrant spirit that is excited to share their passion with kids and inspire the next generation of musicians. Check them out.