Madeline, from children’s book to Englert

BY KATIE HANSON | MARCH 26, 2009 7:40 AM

People who still chow down freedom fries may be dismayed to learn one of literature’s gutsiest young ladies is a blue-blooded Parisian.

In his six original stories, Ludwig Bemelmans’ classic character Madeline battles near-drowning, appendicitis, and the devious Lord Cucuface but always comes out on top. Arguably her greatest triumph — persuading the mischievous Pepito to turn over a new leaf — will come to the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., on Saturday, when the national touring group ArtsPower performs the musical Madeline and the Bad Hat.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Madeline is a young girl who lives away from home with 11 other little girls and their teacher, Miss Clavel. In Madeline and the Bad Hat, the Spanish ambassador moves in next door to the girls with his son Pepito. While the ambassador is away, Pepito wreaks havoc on the neighborhood, trapping animals and putting them into his menagerie and bullying the young girls. But when Pepito has a serious accident, Madeline persuades him to reconsider his ways.

“We all love the Madeline books,” said playwright Greg Gunning, who has adapted not only Bemelmans but other famous authors, including Judy Blume and Lois Lowry, for ArtsPower. “They seem to be classics, and they’re on many school [reading] lists.”

Madeline is only one of several ArtsPower shows touring the country. The theater troupes perform for elementary-school audiences and their families.

Gunning said readability is key when he chooses a new story to adapt for the stage.

“We choose books schools would be interested in reading,” he said. “We want to encourage the audience to read a book after they’ve seen the show.”

Actor Monica Hanofee, who plays Madeline, said the story’s drama also makes it the most audience-friendly of Bemelmans’ tales.

“This book has the most action, so it’s the most exciting to watch,” she said.

Hanofee, 22, said she is particularly suited to the role after studying both theater and dance in college — and she loves the books as well.

“It’s very exciting,” Hanofee said. “[Madeline] is something I remember from my childhood, and now it’s something I can share with kids today.”

Madeline and the Bad Hat started touring roughly three weeks ago, and Hanofee said the group will put on a show almost every day from now until the end of the school year in June. So far, she said, the troupe has acted in front of packed houses and enthralled audiences.

“They laugh a lot,” she said. “During the dance numbers, the kids will clap along, and sometimes they’ll yell things out onstage.”

Gunning said in order to produce the play, ArtsPower got permission from and collaborated with Bemelmans’ daughter, Barbara Bemelmans, who owns the rights to the works.

Gunning said that while he kept the musical quite similar to the original work, he expanded on the scenes in the text and used musical numbers to drive the plot.

“If we completely stuck to the story, the show would be over in five minutes,” he said. “But people who have seen us say we’re very true to the book, and that’s what we want to hear.”

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