A tempting array of music, theater, and art infused with international flavor will be served up as the Annenberg Center hosts the 23d annual Philadelphia International Children's Festival.
Since 1985, the festival has been bringing world-class performing arts to Philadelphia, with 8,235 performances for nearly 420,000 children and their families. This year's program, beginning Sunday and continuing through May 5, boasts 15 multicultural acts, from Latin Fiesta to the Pan-Asian Dance Troupe; there's something to satisfy everyone's taste.
Robbi Hall Kumalo - who will perform with her group Robbi K & Friends - says she was raised in a musical family and jumped "full blown" into children's theater. "It is such a freeing environment," she says. "I'm completely myself, not trying to be a gorgeous diva knocking you out with verbal acrobatics - and children eat it up."
The pulse of Paul Simon's Graceland, with its infectious African rhythms, provides inspiration for Kumalo when she wants to "quake the spirit." She says the album "changes the way people listen to music and make music - politically and spiritually - it affected everybody, and that's the energy I come from."
Back at the festival for an encore appearance, Philadelphia-based Steve Pullara & His Cool Beans Band approach performing with the same vigor, never creating a set list ahead of time.
"You never know the size or age group an audience will be, so you have to be fast on your feet and know how to work a crowd," Pullara says.
The rock-heavy duo Ernie & Neal, from the Garden State, anticipates that parents will get into the act. This is "not a babysitter atmosphere," says Neal Tetti. "It's definitely more of a family atmosphere, and usually if the parents are grooving, then kids will have a good time too."
The festival's Outdoor Stage acts offer a sampling of international fare. Organizers drew inspiration from ancient art forms when booking artists for this year's event. They brought in a crop of circus acts, puppet masters, jesters, and a mask troupe for the Indoor Mainstage.
Zoppé: An Italian Family Circus celebrates the Old World circus tradition with acrobatic feats, juggling acts, and audience participation. Alex, King of Jesters entertains kids by squirting water out of his mouth like a European fountain. Le Théâtre de l'Oeil from Quebec, Canada, offers The Star Keeper, a 25-piece puppet show that follows Pretzel and his quest to rescue a fading star. Tamara & the Shadow Theatre of Java, from Indonesia, employ their own brand of puppetry to tell the ancient tale of "The Ramayana." The Axis Theatre Company, another Canadian import, takes audiences on a wild ride aboard Vancouver's Number 14 train where they'll meet a zany cast of masked characters.
The diverse roster of performers draws Maryann Milewski-Moskal, a first-grade teacher at the nearby Penn Alexander School, to the week-long festival each year.
"Ours is a very multicultural school, so it's good for the kids to see different performers from all over the world, and [the festival] offers quality performances and always does really innovative stuff," Milewski-Moskal says.
Her class ends up spending a whole day there, allowing the students to eat lunch outdoors between shows and go from table to table in the Playworks Plaza, where a host of international artisans help kids create their own cultural crafts. In past years, Milewski-Moskal's students have walked away with suncatchers, god's-eye wall hangings, and maracas made with beans and rice that they take home as souvenirs or as gifts for Mother's Day. The best part, she says, is that the shows "captivate the kids - they just sit there mesmerized." Maybe you will be, too.
Philadelphia International Children's Festival, Sunday through May 5, at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut St.
Mainstage Show Indoor artists include Zoppé: An Italian Family Circus; Lelavision Physical Music; Los Folkloristas; Jamie Adkins presents Circus Incognitus; Axis Theatre Company: The Number 14; Le Théâtre de l'Oeil: The Star Keeper; Guy Davis; Alex, King of Jesters; and Tamara & the Shadow Theatre of Java.
Stageworks Artists Outdoor performers include Steve Pullara & His Cool Beans Band; Give & Take Jugglers; Ernie & Neal; Fatima Lavor-Peters; Latin Fiesta; and Robbi K & Friends.
Tickets: $12 for adults, first show; $9 each additional show; $10 for children, first show; $7 each additional show. Prices include events on the Outdoor Stage and Playworks Plaza.
For a full festival schedule, visit www.PennPresents.org. For more information and tickets, call 215-898-3900.