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Living - December 12, 2008

Alamo kids shine in 'Whiskers!'

Musical brings 'Velveteen Rabbit' off the page and onto the stage

by Susan Astbury

Just like in the story about the toys in the nursery being a family, the 15 cast members of "Whiskers!" who range in ages from 5 to 60 have all become close. Most of them return each year not only to act but to enjoy being part of a unit working toward a goal of putting on a production to delight children and adults.

Galatean Players Ensemble Theatre is staging "Whiskers!" for the 14th year at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, starting tomorrow. The musical is based on Margery Williams' classic, "The Velveteen Rabbit," first published in 1922, the story of a rabbit on a search for "real."

Caroline Altman, who wrote the book, lyrics and music for "Whiskers!", is director of education for the San Francisco Opera Guild, a teacher, singer and actor.

"It is told from the toy's perspective," Altman said. "Most of the story takes place in the nursery where the toys come to life. ... It addresses many of the difficult transitions that we face growing up. That's why this is a universal story for all ages."

"This is a multi-generational production," she added. "There is enough humor in the story for little kids to understand - and giggles for adults, too."

Returning to the stage for this year's production are Alamo residents Grace Berchdorf and Makayla Cook, both 8, and Jason Dunning, 15.

"Once the children perform in the production, they are asked back," said Artistic Director Kathryn G. McCarty. "Some of the children stay with us from the time that they are 8 years old until they are 17. Some of the kids have done the show for 10 years." McCarty, who is also a teacher, plays the role of Skin Horse.

Grace Berchdorf, a third-grader at Rancho Romero Elementary, is appearing in the musical for the second year.

"My mom directed 'Whiskers!' last year," said Grace. "I saw the show for five years, and I decided that I wanted to be in it. So I asked my friend Makayla if she wanted to do it with me and she said yes."

"My favorite thing about performing is that I like being with a lot of my friends," Grace added. "The most difficult thing is the movements that you have to do while you are singing the songs. You really have to act like the character you are playing and not like what you act like.

"Last year my head really itched in one part. I wasn't supposed to move but I just had to itch it anyway."

"One thing that I like about being in the show is that I watch everyone else and I can get to know other people's parts, too," said Makayla, who also attends Rancho Romero.

This is her second time in the production as well. Both Grace and Makayla play Tin Soldiers.

"Sometimes the older people in the show help us out with if we forget our blocking or our lines," said Makayla.

Grace comes from a theatrical background, explained her mother Laura Berchdorf.

"Grace's grandmother is the founder and artistic director of Onstage Theatre (in Pleasant Hill)," she said. "I am a director and playwright but I haven't wanted to push our kids into the arts. Grace did a performance at Rancho Romero and was really scared to get up in front of people but once she did it she thought it was fun."

Makayla has been singing since she was 2.

"She used to sing in front of the family with a towel over her head," recalled her mother Jodi Cook. "Makayla didn't mind people hearing her voice but she didn't want them to see her face. Performing in 'Whiskers!' has been an amazing confidence boost."

Jason Dunning, a sophomore at Monte Vista High, is performing in "Whiskers!" for his fourth year. This time he plays the Train.

"I did a lot of plays when I was younger and I met the director, Kathy McCarty," he recalled. "She asked me to be in 'Whiskers!' and I've been in the show ever since."

Juggling rehearsals twice a week and on weekends and keeping up with homework sometimes poses a challenge. All three young actors agree they have to be organized and do their homework right after school. And they also have other activities.

Jason's current passion is writing.

"One summer Jason wrote a 240-page book," said his mother, Rhonda Dunning. "So I signed him up for a writing program called 826 Valencia in San Francisco. I drive him there every Monday night and he spends two hours working with a mentor/tutor."

All three of the young actors from Alamo agree that they want to be in "Whiskers!" again next year.

"Makayla will absolutely do the show next year. One day she has high hopes of being the Velveteen Rabbit," said Jodi Cook.

"Whiskers!" is a sweet story that a lot of children already know, said Artistic Director McCarty.

"It's the story of a little boy who has a velveteen rabbit and what it's like to grow up," she said. "This production brings the story off the page and onto the stage. Our production has the same moral to it as the book but with a slightly different twist."

Director McCarty and author Altman met almost 15 years ago and became close friends.

"Kathy and I have been supportive of one another's works over the years since we met in 1994," said Altman. "Kathy's passionate and enthusiastic about people working together no matter what level. A result of that is a wonderful loving community in the production."

Story for all ages

What: "Whiskers!" a musical

Who: Galatean Players Ensemble Theatre

Where: Dean Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek

When: Dec. 13-Dec. 20

Tickets: $8-$15; call 943-SHOW (943-7469). Senior, group and school discounts are available.

Other: galateanplayersensemble.homestead.com/whiskers.html lists times and has questions for discussion

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