David Ruben
April 08, 1994 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Talk about a bad rep: Mention the words ”children’s theater,” and most parents conjure up visions of actors on loan from the Royal Academy for the Dramatically Challenged and scripts so cloying they make Barney look like Chekhov. But soon all this may change. The children’s-theater movement, quietly building for years, is poised to hit the main stage: When Disney’s lavish stage adaptation of the hit movie Beauty and the Beast opens this month on Broadway, it’s sure to call attention to an art form that until now has been one of the best-kept secrets in kids’ entertainment.

”There’s a real excitement out there, just as there was with the adult regional-theater movement of the ’50s and ’60s,” says Linda Hartzell, artistic director of the Seattle Children’s Theatre. Hartzell is referring not just to Disney’s newfound interest in live stage productions but to the approximately 80 children’s theaters across the country that, despite arts-funding cutbacks and the still-pervasive ”kiddie show” reputation, are stronger, more popular, and producing more adventurous works than ever before.

Hartzell’s troupe, for instance, just moved into a sparkling new $10.4 million theater, where it’s putting on imaginative productions like The Rememberer, a play about a Native American girl’s turn-of-the-century childhood. And kids’ theater is thriving in other cities as well. In Minneapolis, The Children’s Theatre Company has more than 20,000 subscribers. In Louisville, Ky., the Stage One children’s theater plays to a quarter million people each year. And Omaha’s 45-year-old Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater is renovating a historic playhouse, where it will continue to stage both traditional and original works by the likes of Iron John author Robert Bly.

The best indicator of just how hot kids’ theater is becoming, though, may be Disney’s flashy pyrotechnics-packed Beauty and the Beast, which played to jammed theaters during its tryout this winter in Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars. Although a bit heavy on the razzle-dazzle, the clever, polished performance (featuring Happy Days‘ Tom Bosley) delighted young audiences. (Beauty took in more than $250,000 in its first day of Broadway ticket sales, scoring the biggest box office opening in the Palace Theatre’s 80-year history.)

Beauty, Disney’s first stage offering, will likely tour other cities around the country; Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Mary Poppins, as well as other Disney chestnuts, are possibilities for future productions. Disney has also negotiated a long-term lease for its own theater in New York’s Times Square, where it plans to begin staging musicals in 1996. It will share the block with the Victory Theater, a 94-year-old landmark being renovated by a nonprofit group to be a venue for plays, dance, music, and puppetry for young audiences. ”I’m excited that Broadway is putting some of the great children’s stories on stage,” says Robyn Flatt, executive director of the Dallas Children’s Theater. ”It helps to validate the effort we’re all making.”

Maurice Sendak is another theater enthusiast whose efforts are having a similar effect. In 1990, the renowned author teamed up with writer Arthur Yorinks to, in Sendak’s words, ”reinvigorate and revolutionize what is commonly done in the name of children’s theater.” Dubbed The Night Kitchen after one of Sendak’s best-known books, the enterprise has performed Sendak’s Really Rosie and Yorinks’ So, Sue Me. ”There simply is nothing to compare with theater,” Sendak says. ”The communal feeling, with audience and actors breathing the same air. It’s a unique experience. We need to make going to the theater as utterly normal for children as visiting the dentist.”

Robyn Flatt agrees. ”Children love the accessibility and interactive nature of theater,” she says. ”They realize that those are real people up there, and yet unlike adult audiences, children will dive right into the realm of make-believe.” And with so many kids defining ”cultural alternatives” as Sega versus Nintendo, the renaissance of live theater couldn’t come at a better time.

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