Youth and France! That seems like a strange combination to suddenly loom big on the local theater scene. But, youth and France were recently very present. What, you hadn't heard? Well, you're not alone. Youth and France slipped by somewhat under the radar. But, in fact, they deserved to be noticed.
At the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, local theater goers were regaled with the American premiere of Le Paradis des Chats, an opera for children's voices and orchestra, composed by Vladimir Kojoukharov. Kojoukharov flew in from Montpellier, France, to rehearse the show and conduct the orchestra. He worked with a local team (stage director Kris Shaw and JPAS Children's Chorus director Lauren Buckley) to put together the first-ever English translation of his opera.
Le Paradis des Chats (A Paradise Just for Cats) is based on a Japanese folk tale and tells the story of Yukiko, a young servant girl who is mistreated by the noblewoman she serves. The girl's one friend is her pet cat, and when the cat runs away, the girl sets out to find her. This epic journey eventually leads to a strange land inhabited only by cats. In fact, no human has ever set foot there. Not all the cats in this "Paradise" are as tame and affectionate as Yukiko's. In fact, many of them are wild and downright dangerous. To protect Yukiko, her cat gives her a magic bag. When she returns home, Yukiko finds the bag contains gold. As a result, Yukiko is rich and free. But the mean old noblewoman decides to go the paradise of the cats in order to enrich herself (even more than she is already). Of course, this sort of greed is rarely rewarded in fairy tales.
One of the joys of the show is that the music is both interestingly contemporary and yet accessible. A second joy is that the show is performed by children, so the story is told with the winning naiveté of make-believe.
Among the excellent young leads were 13-year-old Jeanne Treuting as Yukiko, 12-year-old Bonnie Mulholland as the noblewoman, 11-year-old Patrick Hill as the Cat and 12-year-old Lydia Lopez as the narrator.
When something like Le Paradis des Chats happens, we tend to take it for granted. Surely there are organizations somewhere with deep pockets and high motives that make these things possible. In fact, it's more a case of luck and a few stubborn individuals. A big thank you to Dennis Assaf and his colleagues at JPAS and Debbie de la Houssaye, the local artistic attache with French Cultural Services. I am told that Le Paradis des Chats required four years of perseverance to ripen from the germ of the idea to an actual performance.
The other local conjunction of youth and France took place at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Moliere's Les Dames Savantes (The Learned Ladies) was brought to life by a cast of talented teenagers under the direction of Janet Shea.
Moliere first produced his comedy in 1672 in Paris, and the target of his satire was contemporary mores. One can easily imagine the winks and nudges in the original audience as certain recognizable figures were held up to ridicule. Shea decided to take the play outdoors and across the Atlantic. Her learned ladies struggle with Cupid in the Hamptons in 1927. One of the bragging points of the NOCCA production was that -- for the first time -- students themselves devised every aspect of the show.
The play was set in the yard and porch of a clapboard house. A kind of weird, but somehow appropriate, cross current seemed to waft in from The Great Gatsby. Perhaps this native setting of the follies and foibles of a frivolous society helped the young actors find a style. Kaity Jones designed the set, David Rigamer designed the lights and Mignon Charvet designed the costumes.
In the Learned Ladies, a true-hearted suitor and a scoundrel-like suitor joust for the love of a family's eligible daughters. As is so often the case in Moliere, pretension is the fatal flaw and common sense the cure. Andrew Miller, Maya Blount, Taylor Shurte, Rachel Clark, Patrick Hunter and Daniel Troyano -- among others -- helped make this a delightful outing. Once again, as with last year's She Stoops to Conquer, director Shea has chosen to challenge her students with a text that has formal demands. And once again, her students have risen to the challenge.
- Servant girl Yukiko (Jeanne Treuting, right) seeks comfort in the Cat (Patrick Hill) in JPAS' U.S.-premiere staging of the children's opera Le Paradis des Chats.