Lauren Bobeck and Wendy Jones in Children's Theater of Madison's The American Girls Revue.
At Saturday afternoon's opening performance, Overture Center's Playhouse was filled with girls, their moms (plus a handful of dads), and their dolls. Yes, about a fifth of the young audience had brought their American Girl dolls to the theater. The girls and their dolls were dressed in their best. A few even had matching outfits.
It was clear that the audience was familiar with the American Girl books and dolls. Created by Pleasant Rowland and headquartered in Middleton, the American Girl brand (now owned by Mattel) has been going strong for 25 years. The American Girl dolls portray girls living at various moments in U.S. history. Corresponding books tell each character's story as seen through the girl's own eyes. From pioneer Kirsten to runaway slave Addy, the characters represent girls from different time periods, classes, and cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
For those new to the American Girl phenomenon, The American Girls Revue is structured in a way that introduces theatergoers to the American Girl characters with a series of vignettes. The show seems a little like part of a sales campaign for the American Girl products. There are stacks of catalogs in the lobby, along with books and paper dolls for sale. The audience was thoroughly warned about taking photos -- especially since, as producing artistic director Roseann Sheridan explained, there's "a lot of brand protection on the show."
Advertising opportunity or not, the quality and polish of this production are undeniable. This is a top-notch show in all ways. From set design to costuming, production values are exceptionally high. In fact, this marks the first time The American Girls Revue has been produced outside of Chicago, L.A. and New York.
Even with its national profile, the highlights of this production are completely homegrown. It's the young actors in CTM's production who make it such a success. While CTM always involves young actors, The American Girls Revue puts children center stage. A few adult actors round out the cast, but all main roles are played by children. The young cast is an immensely talented bunch -- each girl sings confidently, and all aspects of their performances are well-rehearsed. Most importantly, the young actors seem to be having fun on stage.
This show was made with kids in mind. Running at just over an hour and structured in short scenes, the length and style are highly appropriate for the under-12 set. The American Girls Revue offers a good balance of singing, dancing and dialogue, keeping the audience engaged until the very end.
The stories that unfold in The American Girls Revue are simple, though they touch on topics that aren't -- from poverty to women's suffrage to slavery. While to adult eyes, some of the messages in The American Girls Revue may appear overly simplified and even excessively patriotic, the primary lessons that run through the historical stories are ones that it's hard to argue with: be brave, work hard, do your best and always dream big.