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Children see their favorite characters in person when 'Books Come Alive'

Thursday, June 27, 2002

By A.J. Caliendo

Have your kids ever wondered what Mike Mulligan's steam shovel looks like up close and personal? Or if Sam I Am is a boy or a girl?

Alex Noble, left, portrays Mike Mulligan, the classic children's book character, with fellow actors Kiley Caughey and Theresa Danko of Stage Right! in Greensburg during the acting groups summer camp. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Those and other questions will be answered this summer when "Books Come Alive" appears at a library or elementary school near you.

"Books Come Alive" is the creation of Chris Rizk and Tony and Renata Marino of Greensburg's Stage Right! production company and school for the performing arts. After it had a limited run last summer, Greensburg-Hempfield Library Executive Director Cesare Muccari decided to expand the program for 2002.

"[We] realized this would be a great addition to our summer reading programs," Muccari said.

This years productions are "Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel," "The Adventures of Madeline" and "Green Eggs and Ham."

Adapting the works for the stage has been a collaborative family effort by the husband and wife Marinos, and Rizk, who is Tony Marino's sister. Rizk wrote the original music for all three plays, while Tony Marino adapts the works and directs, and choreographer Renata Marino handles the dancing.

By summer's end, the three casts, composed of the Marinos and Stage Right! students, will have put on more than 35 shows -- at Greensburg-Hempfield, New Kensington, Murrysville, Uniontown and Latrobe libraries as well as Maxwell, Bovard, Stanwood, West Point, Fort Allen, Hutchinson and East Hempfield elementary schools.

"Mulligan," which started running June 10, has already become a hit with the youngsters.

"We're getting a great response from the kids," said Tony Marino, "and the biggest compliment is that they sit there for 35 minutes and watch."

Marino also finds it gratifying that the performances seem to be heightening the interest in reading. He said that Muccari and the librarians consistently tell him that, after a performance, copies of the book that is being performed are checked out in record numbers.

Rizk insists that is no accident because the books are selected to ensure maximum appeal and to teach good life lessons.

"We try to find books with a message, a moral," Rizk said.

The creative team also tries to strike a gender balance.

While "Mulligan" is considered more of a "boys book," the Madeline series has always appealed more to young female readers. But according to Rizk, no charges of sexism have accompanied "Books Come Alive's" 2002 premiere.

"It's a good boys book, but it has a good message all around," she said of the story of construction worker Mulligan and the faithful coal-driven steam shovel that he refuses to scrap just because new diesel models have become popular.

"Besides," Renata Marino chimed in, "the steam shovel, Mary Ann, is a girl."

Tony Marino said that the second production of the summer, "The Adventures of Madeline," will combine two favorite volumes of the series, which chronicles the exploits of a French orphan. They are "Madeline and the Bad Hat" and "Madeline Goes to London."

Similarly, Marino determined that "Green Eggs and Ham," couldn't carry a 35-minute performance alone, so he is combining that story-in-rhyme with two other Seuss books, "To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," and probably "The Cat in the Hat."

The Stage Right! team hopes kids will love those next two shows as much as the first.

"Books Come Alive" performances are being presented Mondays through Fridays at the libraries and elementary schools mentioned above. For specific titles, dates and times, call Stage Right! at 724-832-7464.

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