The Three Javelinas – Theatre Review: Childsplay, Tempe

Pig poster

After a three-year workshop and development program, Childsplay finally unveiled its ambitious new home-grown musical this weekend, The Three Javelinas, based on the hugely popular children’s book of the Southwest by Susan Lowell.  The lengthy preparation has paid off wonderfully well with a result that is both exciting and very, very funny.

Javelinas book cover

 Anyone in this part of the country who has a child will probably have heard of the book even if they’ve never read it.  Those who’ve recently migrated to the Southwest will find much in the nicely illustrated short story to not only entertain but to use as a source of flavoring for the appreciation of living a new life in a new part of the country buried deep in desert Southwestern culture.  By adapting Lowell’s book – it’s full, original title is The Three Little Javelinas – and adding imagination of her own, writer and lyricist Jenny Millinger collaborating with Todd Hulet who wrote the music, bring Lowell’s fun story to colorful life.  It’s the accomplished cast of Childsplay that makes the adventure leap off the page.

Based on the classic fable The Three Little Pigs and all looking wonderfully resplendent in D. Daniel Hollingshead and Kish Finnegan’s grand and detailed costume designs, barnyard javelina brothers Juan (an appropriately timid Tommy Strawser) and Jose (a funny D.Scott Withers) along with sister Josefina (a truly delightful Molly Lajoie) regularly perform their country musical, foot-stomping, hand-clapping act at the Last Chance Saloon.  It’s a place that asks for no rowdy behavior and everyone is to leave their horse outside.  But barnyard performing is no longer enough for Josefina.  She has dreams.  When the sister receives an invite to go to Hoggywood where she believes her talents will be noticed by those who count, Josefina sees this as the opportunity she’s always wanted.  She could be known as Josefina, the Prima Javelina Ballerina.  Much to the chagrin of the two brothers, Josefina packs her bags and heads further west.  “Who will cook dinner?” asks a worried Jose.

 Pig 1

If losing their sister to the glamour of Hoggywood wasn’t enough, there’s even more trouble for the not so little javelinas.  A big, bad coyote (a perfectly animated Kyle Sorrell) who possesses a rare talent for trickery – we’re even treated to a slight-of-hand magic trick – has been given three chances by the unseen Coyote Council to catch a javelina.  Like its more famous fairy tale counterpart, what follows is the coyote’s attempts to blow down Juan’s tumbleweed house, Jose’s wigwam-like home made of saguaro ribs, and finally Josefina’s house made of the finest adobe bricks of the Southwest along with a wood stove built in the corner just right for any unwanted coyote intruder who even thinks of climbing down the chimney smoke stack to get inside.

Backed by musicians Alan Ruch, Jason Brown, Christopher Rose and Nick Rizzo seen throughout in a raised, wooden barnyard pen of their own, and Millinger and Hulet’s upbeat, tuneful and occasionally surprisingly elaborate songs, the musical moments nicely propel the story forward without stopping the show.  They’re all brought to life by the show’s three leads, particularly Molly Lajoie whose talent for dancing – Molly also choreographed the musical – is equaled by an outstanding singing ability.  Molly’s The Day I Lead The Parade is a heartfelt, musical highlight.

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But there’s one more cast surprise, and his every moment, no matter how brief, is always a scene-stealer.  Jon Gentry plays several supporting characters, including all Hoggywood talent agents who close their doors on Josefina, and the adobe brick maker who aids the javelina ballerina in the building of her brick home, but his main character is The Boy Who Brings You the News, principally the mail man who enters, sings his brief introduction, delivers the letter, then promptly marches off.  There’s such a warm, friendly manner to Gentry, backed by a cheeky sense of humor and delivered with such great, comedic timing, not to mention the distinctive sound of his voice, that when he’s there, the stage is always his.

 Pig 2

Running longer than several recent Childsplay productions – including an intermission, the show lasts approximately 110 minutes, plus there’s a 10 minute Q&A with the cast after the show which always produces at least one gem of a question from its young audience – for the most part, director Dwayne Hartford has produced a thoroughly delightful and laugh-out-loud musical production that engages until Tim Monson’s colorfully lit fade out.

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Only occasionally does the production falter when some dialog is lost amidst the backing score, particularly during the chaos of the coyote’s attack on the brick house when panicked characters shout but what they’re saying is lost in the noise, plus the cavernous Tempe Theatre stage often makes the staging look sparse, despite Holly Windingstad’s eye-catching set design.  A smaller and more intimate setting would work wonders.

 For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the Childsplay website.

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