BLOOMINGTON – Perched high in a ceiling corner of Illinois Wesleyan University's Presser Hall is Inky the Bat – the Very, Very Big Bat, in fact.
Inky's wings are spread wide in a holding pattern, preparatory to the big swoop.
For the time being, he eyes the proceedings down at floor level with a dispassionate, but — one suspects — hungry gaze.
So many necks, so little time?
Further whetting Inky's appetite, no doubt, is the entrance of one Nanny Goody, a buxom, harrumphing matron from the Mrs. Doubtfire School of Gender-Crossed Child Care.
Beneath Nanny's voluminous padding lurks at least three other characters who will soon be appearing under Inky's gaze:
1. the caped Count Pizzicato, who seems to have swept in from a Gilbert & Sullivan revamp of “Dracula”;
2. the courtly Mr. Buttle, as perennially civil as Nanny Goody is perpetually agog;
3. and, last but not least, The Narrator, tasked with maintaining neutrality in the face of chronic conflict.
Other characters circling around Nanny/Count/Buttle/Narrator include:
The winsome Princess Aria, destined to go the Sleeping Beauty route if things aren't rectified before Curse Time kicks in ... the proto-tech-geek Prince Poco, who has fashioned a hand-held smart device from a smashed crystal ball several fairy-tale centuries ahead of time ... resident do-badder, the Evil Queen Leather Boots, dispenser of princess-ready curses ... and Prince Forte, whose forte is heeding the evil bidding of Leather Boots.
Plus, of course, Inky the Bat, Princess Aria's high-flying pet rodent.
But fear not: these seemingly worrisome denizens of the land called Singlandia are not about to burst their bounds and wreak havoc locally.
Well ... except, that is, for more than 40 performances of “Who Stole B-Flat?” before captive audiences of about 8,000-plus Central Illinois kids in the month ahead, along with a trio of public performances, including two this weekend (see accompanying information box).
The occasion at hand: rehearsals for the 12th annual spring Prairie Fire Theatre Children's Opera Tour, in which the all-singing troupe, led by PFT's founder Robert Mangialardi (as Nanny Goody/Count Pizzicato, et al.), embark on their mission to bring the wonderful world of opera to a demographic who may never have known it existed.
Armed with a smart, “Princess Bride”-worthy script and lyrics by local playwright Nancy Brokaw (which she is supplying for the fourth season in a row), the one-act "Who Stole B-Flat?" is deftly executed via spry direction from seasoned Bloomington-Normal theater vet Rhys Lovell (last seen in the title role of “Hoss” at the McLean County Museum of History), Mangialardi's trademark baritone bravado in his quadruple-threat turn, and four top talents from IWU's vocal performance pool.
Also assisting: colorful costumes, a utilitarian set that travels well to as many four performances a day, and kid-friendly props from Jeannie Breitweiser, creator of the pole-controlled Inky.
All told, the rehearsal in progress gives every evidence of being pure catnip to the show's target K-5 demographic: the action is brisk, the humor quick, the characters accessible, the requisite sword fight a hoot.
Best of all: Brokaw's witty lyrics, set to a potpourri of arias and songs from the worlds of Wolfgang A. Mozart, J.S. Bach, Puccini, Henry Purcell and Sullivan (if not Gilbert) bearing titles like "Boot Crunch!," "Swipe, Poke, and Then Stare" and "Just Look At Me (Adele's Laughing Song)."
All of which are dispensed in a trim 45 minutes or less, and smart enough to appeal to sensibilities far removed from K-5.
Not since the brothers Marx spent a night at the opera ...
Prairie Fire's days at the opera (all performances are matinees) began 12 springs ago when the Bloomington-Normal-based theater troupe, best known for revivals of Gilbert & Sullivan and musical revues, decided to nurture their audience at a younger age.
As Mangialardi recalls, the first production, "Little Red Riding Hood," boasted "fairly ambitious, hard music," and set a pattern of producing pre-existing one-acts, usually fairy tale-based, and always performed with utmost professional vocal skill.
"The first year it was just me and two girls, very small and simple," he adds.
Even so, no punches were pulled on the music front, he says. Or: just because it's kids' opera doesn't mean it can't be grand.
From an original audience of seven area schools, the annual spring tour has grown exponentially, to the current total of 40, which has about maxed out what a small troupe can handled in the roughly month-long window between May and early June.
Brokaw came on board with her original scripts and lyrics, first offering spins on existing fairy tales like "The Ugly Duckling" and now creating from scratch, hence "Who Stole B-Flat?," with a nod to tradition (a touch of "Sleeping Beauty" amid the pet bats and smart devices).
"I like to have subtexts, with meaning layered into the story, such as 'Duckling's' message that no matter where you start from, you can get anywhere from there," she adds.
As a veteran of teaching writing at the grade school level, Brokaw says "my specialty is fourth- and fifth-grade boys ... I love to work with them because they think writing isn't cool until we sit down and work on a graphic novel of how aliens take over the world with guitars that are laser guns."
All of a sudden, she adds, "they're involved ... to hold their attention, things have to move fast and be exciting."