Emphasizing the Fun
By Suzanne Spinelli
When it comes to children's theatre, Taubenslag Productions, which will stage ‘Snow White' in Edison, offers just the right mix: classic tales told by a multicultural cast with some help from the audience. Reaching out with a claw-like hand, an evil queen offers Snow White a shiny red apple as a crowd of children shouts warnings to the unknowing princess. Despite the audience's advice, Snow White takes the fatal bite and falls into a deathlike sleep.
Audience participation is the latest trend in children's theater, but it has always been tradition for Taubenslag Productions. Parents and kids will be able to carry on that tradition during the company's upcoming performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Middlesex County College in Edison.
“Our philosophy is that children's theater should be like a three ring circus and a Broadway style musical extravaganza for children and parents,” says director and actor Michael Taubenslag.
Although it's based on the classic Grimm fairytale, the hour-long Snow White features original lyrics and dialogue written by Mr. Taubenslag (pronounced TOW-Ben-Slag) and the company's founder, his father, Elliott Taubenslag.
In Snow White, an evil queen is jealous of the beautiful Snow White, a princess who has been deemed fairest in the land by the queen's magic mirror. The queen sends Snow White into the woods with a woodsman who is supposed to kill her. Because of his fondness for Snow White, he kills a pig instead. Snow White ends up in a cottage inhabited by seven dwarfs, who befriend her. The evil queen, disguised as a witch, visits Snow White and offers her a poison apple, which she eats. She then falls into a deathlike sleep. The princess is awakened by the kiss of a handsome prince, and together they live happily ever after.
In the Taubenslag version, this basic story is flashed out with humorous interaction between the characters and the audience. Mr. Taubenslag plays Grumpy, a crabby dwarf who is also the narrator of the show. “The narrator's job is to get the kids involved in the story, and because I'm Grumpy I try to get the kids to argue with me,” Mr. Taubenslag says. “For example, at the end of the show when Snow White is dead I say, ‘Nothing can save the princess.' And the kids yell out, ‘That's not true!'”
Even the stock characters get to join in the fun. Prince Charming, for instance, is extremely eager to save Snow White with a kiss until his sidekick; Lucretia – a friend of Snow White's from the palace – suggests that she might have the flu.” The prince leaves the stage because he doesn't want to get sick, and the kids scream and scream to get him to come back on and kiss her,” Mr. Taubenslag says, laughing.
Linda Ladolcetta, whose children Michael, 11, and Lauren, 7, are in Snow White, says the show is a wonderful experience for everyone.” I love them being a part of it, and I also like to see the interaction of the children in the audience,” she says. “It's an excellent way for children to participate in the arts.”
Mr. Taubenslag was a child himself when he first appeared on stage in 1965. Four years old at the time, he played the part of a Fisherman's son in Cinderella. Interestingly enough, the part wasn't scripted.” I was crying because I wanted to go on stage, and the man who was playing the fisherman picked me up and carried me on as a joke,” he recalls.
The children's theater group was founded in 1964 by Elliott Taubenslag, Michael's father. Then a Drama and English teacher at East Brunswick High School, Mr. Taubenslag also ran a children's summer camp for East Brunswick Township. He created and produced his first professional show, Cinderella, in a small theater on 42nd Street in New York City. Because of the famous location, actors and other famous folks took their families to see shows put on by Elliott Taubenslag Productions. When he was starring in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, for instance, Zero Mostel would bring his son Josh. And actor Peter Lawford, brother-in-law to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, really gave the business a boost when he convinced his famous relative to bring her children John and Caroline to the theater. “My dad always said that Mrs. Kennedy coming to the theater was our big break,” Michael Taubenslag says.
In 1966, as the neighborhoods around Times Square began to go downhill, the group moved to the Jan Hus Theatre on East 74th Street. Elliott Taubenslag, who is now retired and spends most of his time in Florida, ran the New York Company for 11 years, but decided to give it up in 1975. At that time, however, he began to do shows at the Middlesex County College, while still teaching, running the summer camp and operating a small chain of movie theaters in New York City.
Michael Taubenslag, who was stage-struck from the moment he first performed, has his own theatrical ambitions. At the age of 6, he got his first lead as the conscience raising “Cornelius” Cricket in Pinocchio; “Jiminy” he explains, has been copyrighted by the Walt Disney Company. He later went on to do TV and print commercials. But while he enjoys acting, Mr. Taubenslag really wanted to direct. “It was a childhood dream, I think, because I saw Daddy doing it,” he explains. “I always wanted to be a director.” In 1980, he got his chance. Then a freshman at Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts, he asked his dad to put up the funds for him to start the city-based children's theater again.” I knew that if you want to work and stay in the theater, you don't wait around for jobs; you create them,” Mr. Taubenslag says.
The new group continued to perform at the Jan Hus Theater and at Middlesex County College, but also traveled farther afield, performing at theaters throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York. By 1992, touring was so time consuming, in fact, that they gave up their New York City base.
The company has a repertoire of over forty original productions, most of them based on well-known fairy tales. The 1994-1995 season, which started last October and runs through February at Middlesex County College, will finish with Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella.
Mr. Taubenslag says that his father's basic theatrical philosophy is what makes the shows a hit with families, “We never talk down to kids, and we always place emphasis on fun,” he adds.
A penchant for elaborate theatrical effects is also a trademark. In the Taubenslags' version of Pinocchio, an “underwater” ballet is lit with black light and features huge colorful fish. A shipwreck scene in Beauty and the Beast also makes use of black light, strobe, and sounds of thunder and lightning.
Taubenslag Productions also employs a multicultural cast that includes disabled actors. During the 1993-1994 season he staged a production of Alice and Wonderland featuring an African-American Alice. And in a recent production of Peter Pan, a boy with cerebral palsy played the part of Michael, the youngest child. Approximately 50 actors are in the company, most of them adults. Lauen Bodmer, a veteran of many productions at the Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell, is making her children's theater debut as Snow White. She says the company's reputation helped influence her decision to join the show. “I wanted to do this because there is a lot of interaction with the audience,” she says. “It's really great.” Only a few of the shows, Snow White among them, have children in the cast. Six of the seven dwarfs are played by kids, all of them called from the Taubenslag's Theater Camp, which is run out of the Middlesex County College every summer. For 11 year-old Michael Ladolcetta, being part of the production is a dream come true. “I really like it,” he says of his role as Doc, the smartest of the seven dwarfs. “I can get out all of my feelings when I'm acting on stage.”