When I was a little girl, my mom brought me to the summer home of the New York City ballet every year. At a young age, Chris knew the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack and was in three high school plays. So it was inevitable that we were going to introduce Sprout to the theater. I found the perfect opportunity at a local children’s theater company, which puts on shows for little ones called Tiny Tots. The shows are a half-hour long, the lights stay on, they understand if you have to leave in the middle of the performance, and tickets are only five bucks a person. As I wanted to do one, single family holiday activity before Christmas, their presentation of “Nutcracker Fantasy” was perfect.
Evidently, we weren’t the only parents with the same train of thought. There was a whole mess of toddlers (clearly the correct word for a group of toddlers) with their parents in the theater’s lobby. They were quite well-behaved, even when we had to wait in line to get in and again for the show to start. The theater was small, with a carpeted floor with a single long step across the room and bench seating along the wall. The stage was simple – curtains on the sides and a draped balustrade along the back.
As everyone finished settling in, our puppeteer came out for a brief introduction. Explaining that he used to work on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (!) and The Muppets (!!), he said he was familiar with all sorts of puppets. While describing the difference between mouth puppets that talk and marionettes on strings, he demonstrated of how to construct a muppet of the Nutcracker King. It was a nice introduction to the kids who had only seen mouth puppets (otherwise known as muppets) and held everyone’s attention while they seated a few more families.
He then moved on to the actual show, which mainly consisted of the fun dance parts of the Nutcracker. One marionette was a snow lady with naughty little snowflakes that ran away. A poofy poodle juggled snowballs. A Chinese acrobat did flips and balanced a plate on his head. Individual round, green puppets (“I think they’re trees?” I whispered) came together to form a Chinese dragon. A turtle on roller skates jumped and flipped. Elegant plants swooped to the famous Dance of the Flowers.
As his background would suggest, the puppeteer was very talented. His fluid, tiny gestures made it appear as if the puppet itself was doing all of the work. Even though they didn’t speak, each character had a distinct personality and interacted with him in their own unique manner.
Each section followed the same pattern, so it was easy for the little ones to follow along. The puppeteer gave a short introduction to each character, often referring to them as “my friend.” He then brought out the marionette, who did some sort of trick. In several cases, the character was “not very good” at the trick, so they had to try it a couple times with the puppeteers’ encouragement. While most of the puppets’ incompetence was on purpose, one of the dog’s strings broke and a snowball actually fell into the audience. In the end, the character succeeded at the task and moved off-stage. Each vignette was only a few minutes long.
Despite the simplicity of the set-up, there seemed to be a level of confusion among the adults. I heard at least one person say, “Where’s the Nutcracker?” I suspect there were also some parents who agreed with a Yelp review that complained you could see the puppeteer. Neither of these things bothered me though. The plot of the Nutcracker is notoriously thin and toddlers wouldn’t be able to follow it anyway. While some of the characters weren’t in the original story (I don’t recall any frogs on roller skates), the kids didn’t seem to care. Being disappointed at seeing the puppeteer I think is due to a bit of a lack of imagination on the adults’ part. I’m not a great puppeteer and I’ve had children much older than toddlers talk to a puppet I was controlling as if I wasn’t present at all.
In contrast to their parents, the kids were totally mesmerized. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of calmer, quieter non-sleeping toddlers. Sprout watched the whole thing on my lap, thoughtfully chewing on his hand. The kids started getting a little antsy towards the end, but even that was limited to a few comments and squirms. Parents in the audience only brought a few kids out into the hallway, which was impressive for a packed house.
Overall, I was quite impressed, although there were a few things I would change. The design of the Chinese acrobat puppet played off unfortunate racial stereotypes. While I understand that communicating facial features of people of color can be particularly challenging in a puppet, I wish it wasn’t so Fu Manchu-esque. The other thing that grated to me just a bit was that the puppeteer was somewhat demeaning to the puppets who didn’t “want” to try their trick. As the characters were a bit kid-like, I thought he could have a more encouraging tone.
Considering that the show was a great introduction to the theater, Sprout loved it, and it was cheap, we’re sure to be back to the Tiny Tots show in the future.