Kids pro­duc­tion cre­ated right in our own back­yard

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Jen Zoratti

AMONG the preschool set, the Back­yardi­gans are like the Bea­tles. De­but­ing in 2004 and run­ning un­til 2010, the Emmy-win­ning Nelvana/Nick Jr. TV show — which fol­lows the five friends as they use their imag­i­na­tions to go on thrilling ad­ven­tures — is seen in over 40 coun­tries; in North Amer­ica alone, al­most one-mil­lion view­ers tune in per episode. So, when the Back­yardi­gans come to town, it’s a very big deal.

Patti Caplette is the chore­og­ra­pher, direc­tor and writer be­hind The Back­yardi­gans: Sea Deep in Ad­ven­ture, one of three pop­u­lar tour­ing shows based on the hit TV show con­cep­tu­al­ized by Koba En­ter­tain­ment, the Win­nipeg­based com­pany re­spon­si­ble for high­cal­i­bre the­atri­cal adap­ta­tions of a host of fam­ily-friendly prop­er­ties, in­clud­ing Toopy and Bi­noo, Max & Ruby and Dora the Ex­plorer. The Back­yardi­gans: Sea Deep in Ad­ven­ture was in­spired by the aquatic scene in an­other show. “It was just such a great vis­ual scene that I wanted to ex­pand it into its own show,” says Caplette, who is also Koba’s artis­tic direc­tor. “There’s such won­der­ful crea­tures un­der­wa­ter. It makes for a en­ter­tain­ing show.” In Caplette’s ca­pa­ble hands, the beloved fivesome — Pablo, Ty­rone, Tasha, Uni­qua and Austin — are sub­merged in an un­der­wa­ter ad­ven­ture in­volv­ing ev­ery­thing from an oc­to­pus’s gar­den to a jel­ly­fish bal­let. Tapping into her own imag­i­na­tion is one of the high­lights of her job. “I’m a lit­tle kid at heart even though the years are creep­ing up. I love com­ing up with crazy ideas. I love that we never say no to an idea right away. We try to cre­ate all the crazy things in our head,” she says. Caplette pays close at­ten­tion to “I con­sider whether or not the scenes should have a tra­di­tional look or if we should use pro­jec­tions. There’s all kinds of chal­lenges — TV can go so much faster than theatre, but theatre has a life of its own. I’m bring­ing these char­ac­ters we know and love into my world.” When it comes to chore­og­ra­phy, com­ing up with ideas for the Back­yardi­gans is a joy, she says. “For­tu­nately, they are dancers and singers — they were cre­ated to be that way on the TV show. That makes my job hap­pier, in­stead of tak­ing char­ac­ters who never dance and make them dance. “And it’s al­ways tremen­dous hav­ing the mu­sic of Evan Lurie.” Lurie, an Amer­i­can mu­si­cian and com­poser who, along with his brother John Lurie, founded the punk-jazz out­fit the Lounge Lizards in 1978, com­posed the orig­i­nal songs for the TV show. His mu­sic is what sets the Back­yardi­gans apart: each episode fea­tures a dif­fer­ent (and usu­ally hy­per-spe­cific) mu­si­cal genre. Mambo, west­ern swing, hip hop, Ir­ish jigs and ’60s Ital­ian pop are just a few of the styles Lurie has ex­per­i­mented with on the show. “It’s re­ally quite some­thing. When ev­ery show is a dif­fer­ent genre, you start real­iz­ing how spe­cific you had to get, it got a lot more com­pli­cated. You can’t just do a Brazil­ian show; we did a samba show and a bossa nova show. Then you need to have cer­tain mu­si­cians and you need to con­sider the style they play in. If we’re do­ing a rock­a­billy show, then I’d bring a Gretsch in­stead of a Fender Stra­to­caster. It was an enor­mous un­der­tak­ing,” he says. It was also a fun un­der­tak­ing, he adds: “Mon­day, we’d have a blue­grass band, Tues­day we’d have 20 string play­ers — ev­ery day was an ad­ven­ture, just like the show it­self.” Lurie, who has also com­posed film scores for ac­tor-di­rec­tors such as Roberto Benigni, Stan­ley Tucci, Steve Buscemi and Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man, wasn’t in the busi­ness of “dumbing-down” mu­sic for kids. He re­spects them too much. “One of my aims was to pre­sent a lot of mu­sic they wouldn’t hear oth­er­wise. We didn’t pay much lip ser­vice to the fact it was for five year olds. We wanted it to be true to the genre. I think I did have one or two songs that were sent back for be­ing too sad, but we wanted it to sound real. I do think (kids) hear that this isn’t cheap. Nick (Jr.) gave me the money to do it, which is why it sounds the way it does. That’s pretty un­usual for TV.”

Lurie’s orig­i­nal mu­sic cer­tainly electrifies the live show, which Caplette says of­fers a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence than TV. “When (kids) have the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing able to feel their favourite char­ac­ter pass by, when they know they’re in the same space, it’s thrilling,” she says. “The screams from the au­di­ence — it’s like any rock star. There’s noth­ing bet­ter than see­ing lit­tle faces all lit up. Kids don’t fake it. When they’re gen­uinely ex­cited, they don’t sit po­litely, they don’t clap po­litely. They keep us hon­est and en­er­getic.” That could go a long way in ex­plain­ing Koba’s suc­cess. The com­pany — whose shows have been pre­sented in 165 North Amer­i­can cities and 12 coun­tries, in­clud­ing Canada, the U.S., France, Switzer­land, Korea, Le­banon and the United Arab Emi­rates — cel­e­brates its 10th an­niver­sary in 2014 and will tour its 40th pro­duc­tion in Septem­ber. Caplette says many folks don’t re­al­ize, a decade later, that these tour­ing pro­duc­tions are be­ing pro­duced right here in Win­nipeg. “We do have a studio in Toronto, but we uti­lize a lot of tal­ent that has come out of the Win­nipeg theatre scene. We put on hun­dreds of shows a year. We’re proud to be from Win­nipeg, and we’re proud to teach the whole world where Win­nipeg is,” she says.


Back­yardi­gans artis­tic direc­tor Patti Caplette gets in the mid­dle of the fun.

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