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Kid 'N Plays 

Toddler-friendly theater makes the summer go by in a breeze

At some point, maybe around the time of the original "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoon, creators of children's entertainment took mercy on the parents. A refreshing minority of family-targeted plays, films and television shows began sneaking in jokes and characterizations that grown-ups could enjoy, or at least tolerate.

Like a particularly precarious game of hopscotch, adult-friendly kid shows must keep their balance without straying outside the lines to either cynical self-consciousness or insipid sweetness.

Two shows this summer successfully play to both age groups. Cinderella Confidential at Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage finds a clever way to revisit the classic fairly tale, while Everybody Loves Pirates at the Center for Puppetry Arts seasons a silly adventure yarn with surprisingly hip humor.

Written by Eric Coble, Cinderella Confidential recounts the wish-fulfillment story from the point of view of the "Glitter Kingdom" media the night after Cinderella left her glass slipper at the royal ball. "Action News" reporter Deb Jabber (Kaira Whitehead) and unctuous morning show host Donny Glamour (Hollie Game Peek III) compete to uncover the identity of the mystery girl who stole the heart of the nerdy prince (Eric Mendenhall).

Cinderella Confidential, directed by Clint Thornton, offers a sly send-up of the modern news business. The reporters' eagerness to take snap polls of the audience doesn't just encourage audience participation, but mirrors the obsessions of Internet-era journalism. Perhaps the show's most pointed line comes when the scatterbrained fairy godmother (Marcie Millard) mistakes Deb for Pinocchio. "I'm a TV reporter," Deb explains, and the fairy godmother replies, "I thought you said you weren't a puppet." The production even features a live video feed, so the audience can watch the show on overhead TV monitors, a surefire way to hold children's attention.

The show mirrors the fractured-fairy-tale approach of the Shrek movies, only without the bodily function humor. On camera, Cinderella's transformed mice recount their experience like a rural couple reluctantly admitting to being UFO abductees. Such jokes may be a bit subtle for young ones, but the quick-changing, four-actor cast (featuring Millard as Cinderella) proves likable, and any kids who know the Cinderella story will be curious to see how the show finds the happy ending.

Grown-ups will probably find bigger laughs from the scruffy charms of Everybody Loves Pirates, created and performed by Maine's Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers (siblings Brian, Erik and Robin Torbeck). In kind of a zany Hardy Boys premise, young Lucy and her goofball pal, Chucky, find a treasure map and must contend with mean but bumbling pirates in a race to find the riches.

If Conan O'Brien made up a children's bedtime story, you can imagine it playing out like Everybody Loves Pirates. The shabby buccaneers include hot-tempered "One-Eye the Pirate" and conniving "Captain No-Eyes," leading to a mildly grisly running joke about how pirates tend to lose body parts. Pink Floyd, Styx, "Gilligan's Island" and "Mission: Impossible" all provide amusing musical cues, and the likes of a real-life Sea Monkey and a superheroic crustacean provide key assistance.

Everybody Loves Pirates is not exactly a showcase in gorgeous puppet handicraft, in contrast to the delicate designs of the National Marionette Theatre's slow-paced Peter Pan earlier this month. But the puppeteers make up for their simple designs with their cheerful, "Muppet Show" vibe that proves even less condescending than Cinderella Confidential. When Chucky shows off his high-strung weirdness or the pirates argue the merits of Froot Loops vs. Mueslix, Everybody Loves Pirates reveals a loose, chummy sense of humor.

While parents will probably prefer the humor of Everybody Loves Pirates, children should dig both shows more or less equally. Either way, you've got to do something with the kids until school starts.

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