If there’s one thing this age of coronavirus is teaching us, it’s to be open to new ways of doing things: working from home, gathering friends via the internet, trying new hobbies when old ones are off limits, and so on.
For Roanoke Children’s Theatre, one new way of doing things has been to mount outdoor performances of its current show, “Jack and the Wonder Beans” — a charming hourlong Appalachian-themed telling of the familiar fairy tale, that will have grown-ups smiling as much as the little ones.
An afternoon rainstorm made way for a mercifully mild summer evening Friday for a production that took place on Second Street in front of Greene Memorial United Methodist Church. Audience members needed to bring their own lawn chairs, and several dozen did just that, spreading out along the sidewalk and the church porch. (COVID-related precautions, such as requiring masks, were also implemented.)
After a brief delay to let the church chimes complete their 7 p.m. cycle, the show got underway with a lively opening dance number by the company. Although the show was not a musical per se, traditional folk music was a unifying element throughout. With a lovely voice and engaging energy, Shelby Mason was a delight as the Storyteller, who drove the unfolding plot and even encouraged some audience participation — a roving troubadour-narrator playing her own stringed instruments as she went.
Joel Hadden gave the title character a fitting insouciance as he tumbled his way from family poverty to fantastical adventure. Emma Sala played dual roles as Jack’s beleaguered Mam as well as the High Tall Giant Woman of the beanstalk world, bringing a wonderful sass to both parts. David Ratliff channeled his inner curmudgeon to comedic effect as the High Tall Giant Man. Both he and Sala had to navigate the action wearing stilts and costume heads reminiscent of oversized apple-face dolls.
Other members of the company included Grace Eakin as a Farmer’s Wife and as the Chicken Lady, whose hens provide one of the show’s cute visual motifs. Zachary Conklin also had two roles, as a Vagabond and as the Bank Teller, who is part of a learning moment of sorts for young audience members. Beahlen Deacon is utterly adorable as Cow #1 (the one that gets traded for the magic beans), with Drew D’Alessandro and Riley Whisnant having fun with their roles as Cows #2 and #3. Brynne Wiegard gently clucks and flaps as the Hen that lays golden eggs in the giants’ lair. The other Hoe Down Dancers include Mikayla Parker, Hannah Cecil, Lakota Creasy, Olivia Goodman and Kristen Kay Smith, whose fiddle-playing enhances the show’s score.
Once again, director Pat Wilhelms has pulled together an outstanding team. All the speaking players adopt strong and consistent Appalachian accents and skillful stage movement. Jimmy Ray Ward’s spare but lively set evokes the mountain ambiance, supported by a delightful collection of props. Kathy Jordan’s costumes are authentic and well crafted.
It’s impossible to hold any kind of activity outside without a few intrusions of the real world, and there was a mild degree of traffic noise and such. But to the great credit of the entire cast and crew, no one broke concentration for a second. If anything, the challenge of the unconventional setting seemed to solidify the ensemble’s unity. An example we might all take to heart.