Fort Worth — Nothing wrong with putting a little spin on an old classic. The Emperor’s New Clothes, playing at Casa Mañana Children’s Theatre through Feb. 17, takes the classic tale of hubris brought low by a child’s wisdom and adds a little emotional underpinning, while still keeping things entertaining for the show’s young audience. And while the original musical numbers are, for the most part, on the forgettable side, the cast’s enthusiasm keeps Casa’s production humming along.
The castle servants, the villagers, even Arno the scrub boy (Mark Quach) are all in a tizzy: Emperor Marcus the Third (Nigel Hall)’s coronation is today, and the young emperor-to-be is nowhere to be found. Turns out Marcus (an 18-year-old bookworm) isn’t so sure he’s ready to live up to the legacy of Marcuses One and Two, at least until Arno gives him an idea: maybe to feel like an emperor, you need to dress the part? Marcus has his servant Deena (a wonderfully exasperated Cara Statham Serber), a talented seamstress, put to work immediately making him regal new outfits, each more elaborate than the last. But while Marcus dithers over clothes and plans a big parade to show them off to the people, a series of unfortunate events (a sinkhole, a flooding river, etc.) hit the townspeople. All his subjects want is for Marcus to make decisions to solve their problems, but he doesn’t feel enough like an emperor to do so—at least, not until he finds the right clothes. But a dastardly swindler (David Coffee) overhears the emperor’s belief that it’s clothes that make the man, and decides to con Marcus. He declares that he can make Marcus magic clothes, the most beautiful in the world, and ones that are invisible to fools and liars, but only if he’s allowed to stay in the palace and is given everything he asks for by Marcus and his advisor William (Greg Dulcie). But when the time comes, and the swindler produces the emperor’s “magic” new clothes, will anyone be brave enough to admit they see through the scheme, and show Marcus that it isn’t clothes that make for a wise and just ruler?
Casa Mañana and director Joe Sturgeon have pulled together a fantastic cast for the piece, with some familiar faces for devotees of the DFW theater scene along with some fresher faces. Nigel Hall’s Marcus is sweetly oblivious—with high kicks to die for, BTW—and his musical numbers with Mark Quach’s equally befuddled Arno (Act I’s “Only A Guy Like You” and its reprise in Act II) are the best in the production. Cara Statham Serber keeps her character nicely grounded throughout, and shares an appropriately comfortable “old married couple” chemistry with Greg Dulcie’s gruff William. The role of the gleefully avaricious peddler, with a mix of Harold Hill’s glib patter and Snidely Whiplash’s mustache-twirling, is a perfect showcase for local legend David Coffee in his 89th production with Casa Manana. He glides through the role with a vaudevillian flourish, and the kids in the audience loved to hate him, reveling loudly in his inevitable comeuppance at the play’s end. A quick caveat for parents: this production is, perhaps, on the sophisticated side, and would most likely be suited to children six or so and up, although there’s enough slapstick in the piece that their younger siblings would probably grasp the humor.
The production uses a clever framing device by scenic designer Tara A. Houston: it opens with a group of traveling players (the musical’s cast) arriving at the palace, ostensibly to perform “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” before taking on their roles within the story. The group’s travelling wagon then becomes a set piece throughout, spinning around to be used as a backdrop for a new location, and opening to reveal Marcus’ throne, presumably on a balcony above the adoring masses. The costuming, naturally, plays a key role in the piece, and costume designer Tammy Spencer deserves praise for the sheer volume of pieces she creates for Marcus, only to have them cast aside moments later, as well as for Serber’s red-and-black dress, which is subtly echoed in William’s waistcoat, subtly underlining their connection.
Casa Mañana continues to produce some of the Metroplex’s most consistently beloved children’s theater, and The Emperor’s New Clothes is another worthy addition to their lengthy résumé. The dress code? As long as they aren’t invisible—this is a children’s production after all—you’re probably all set.