Chicago theater’s live show aims at toddler set

It’s probably fair to say that most parents avoid taking their kids to the theater because it involves sitting still and being quiet for an extended period of time – not really most kids’ forte.

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That’s why Emerald City Theatre’s new production, “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” is a great option for giving your little ones a little taste of theater. They’re allowed to stand, outbursts are expected and, best of all, interaction is the name of the game. So much so that when my 17-month-old nephew decided to walk to the front of the room and give the chipmunk puppet a kiss, no one even blinked an eye.

Of course, it’s not “Othello.” The sweet story – dubbed a “Play with Me Play” – doesn’t have a complicated plot, given that it’s aimed at kids birth-4. Rather, it’s the basic story of a Mama Bear (Amanda Hartley) and her cub, Buddy (a puppet manned by Cameron Turner or Bella Coelho), who set out to have a picnic lunch in the woods. Along the way, kids “help” with different tasks using items from their picnic basket (each family or group gets one to share). They’ll love the fun sound effects and music – the buzzing bee is a favorite – not to mention the opportunities to directly interact with the play’s characters (stick around for the chance to hug Buddy at the end of the show).

And while parents might worry about their little ones wandering around, borrowing items from other people’s baskets, or making too much noise, it truly doesn’t faze the cast. When they say it’s a “no rules” theater experience, they’re not kidding.

Although the show captured my nearly 4-year-old nephew’s attention, it seems best geared at kids in the 2-3 range – old enough to understand what’s going on but still captivated by the puppets and props. But if your tykes are on the younger end, it provides a great first-time exposure to the world of theater. And at 45-minute running time, it’s an ideal length for short attention spans.

The performance takes place in Emerald City’s new Little Theatre, an ultra kid-friendly space with bright colors and even a coffee station for caffeine-deficient moms and dads. If you arrive early, be sure to take advantage of the fun toys, huge magnetic wall and various colorful “poofs” for kids to climb. And be sure to bring along socks for everyone in your party – The Little Theatre is a shoe-free studio, all the better for getting up and walking around.

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