Oh, the thrill of being six again. No big responsibilities and a lot of fun.
It’s easy to return to that time of innocence with the 34th annual Northern Alberta International Children’s Festival coming up May 26 to 30.
Set along the tranquil banks of St. Albert’s Sturgeon River, this carnivalesque world – home to adult size frogs, exotic stilt walkers and fairy godmothers – has established itself across North America as a five-star family event.
This year’s theme, Live in Colour, is flush with a magical rainbow of entertainment. Everyone expects face painting, tattoos and chalk art. But there’s more, a lot more.
In total, the $1.4 million festival showcases eight main stage acts, 18 on-site activities, eight roving artists, an outdoor entertainment stage and bunches of free stuff.
And for the pint-sized munchkins, Toddler Town is resurrected with its own special brand of amusements – Kaybridge Puppets, balladeer Martin Kerr, singer Michelle and Friends and St. Albert Public Library Storytelling.
Main stage shows have a reputation for being beautifully crafted and skilfully acted with a great deal of harmony and high energy.
In their festival debut, Australia’s Kaput mixes chaos, comedy and acrobatics. Actor Tom Flanagan revels in the tale of a clumsy Mr. Fix-It, who despite his best efforts only succeeds at creating a bigger catastrophe.
“It’s a hilarious physical comedy and theatre show. It’s a nod to the silent film era where a guy sets up a projector. But he’s a total klutz and things start to unravel. It’s really charming, clever and very funny,” says festival programming presenter Caitlin North.
She goes through the list of performers. The spectacular Vancouver based AchÄ‚Â© Brasil returns for five vigorous performances mixing dance, capoeira, acrobatics and martial arts.
“I love their energy. It’s such a beautiful scene when they dance and drum. Lots of kids enjoy drumming and rhythm and this is something they can participate in.”
St. Albert Children’s Theatre delivers their version of Roald Dahl’s fanciful adventure James and the Giant Peach.
“He’s such a clever storyteller. He’s never as ridiculous or evil as the Grimm Brothers.”
The Golden Dragon Theatre from Vietnam presents a traditional, time-honoured art form of puppetry on water. It is a striking art form with dazzling visuals and exotic musical accompaniment.
As festival producer Stephen Bourdeau explains, the troupe brings a pool close to four feet deep that is filled with water. Invisible underwater puppeteers breathing through a reed manipulate the puppets telling a story above water.
“I’m really excited to see it. Videos don’t do it justice. When you think of the timing and how many people are underwater, it’s amazing,” Bourdeau says.
From our own home turf, Swing, a Franco-Canadian duo fuses traditional fiddling, R&B and rock to create a modern, bilingual sound.
As North notes, “What appeals to me is that they’re pretty contemporary in the way they perform. They have a DJ as well as traditional French-Canadian fiddling. Kids understand and appreciate that.”
Grammy Award winning Dan Zanes, who North describes as a Steve Martin look-alike with Lyle Lovett’s hair, creates an offbeat performance where sea shanties, folk music, early rock and roll, and soulful originals delightfully collide.
“As an adult without children, I think he’s totally entertaining. Dan plays what he calls family music. He has a background in early childhood education and writes about building community and culture.”
Although many Canadians are unfamiliar with this work, Bourdeau explains, “Fred Penner is to us what Dan Zanes is in the United States.”
Last year, Wide Open Theatre introduced the mega hit Massive Munsch. This year the troupe follows up with Magical Munsch, a Muppet-style puppet show from one of Canada’s favourite children’s writers.
And the final show on the block is Under the Stars, a Hansel and Gretel puppet show with original music and surprising lighting effects.
“It’s a beautiful show from Quebec. It’s very sweet. It has a great English translation and the puppets are just under a metre, the size of a three-year-old. There’s a simple set. Everything does double duty and even the puppets become other characters,” North says.
She encourages people to spend a day at the festival rather than just a couple of hours.
“We really want people to see a show. You don’t often get this kind of world-class entertainment for children. Pack a lunch, see a show and really engage in the festivities as opposed to just wandering around.”
Tickets go on sale Monday, March 30. All main stage tickets are $11 and site activity tickets are $3. Toddler Town is $5 for ages 0 to 4 years and free for adults. Call 780-459-1542 or purchase online at ticketmaster.ca.