Eats Yer Spinach

Characters & Company brings Popeye the Sailor to young theatergoers

Characters & Company, West County purveyor of theater for children and adults, is throwing down the gauntlet for a bold new direction in musicals. Early next year the veteran troupe will perform a revue that has done very well in the funky land of Chicago theater, an adaptation of those Saturday-morning shorts of yesteryear, Schoolhouse Rock. In the near term, they will be yanking another cartoon, the classic Popeye the Sailor, from the animated world to the stage.

What happens when a children's cartoon becomes children's theater? If it is done faithfully, as the writers, director and cast of this show have managed, it is fascinating to behold the transformation and truly funny. Like the best of the Popeye cartoons made by Fleischer Studios in the 1930s and '40s, the musical features slapstick comedy, silly voices, funny outfits, singing, sound effects, a damsel in distress, good vs. evil and spinach.

Characters & Company co-owner and artistic director Mark Vaughan, who plays Popeye, has been studying the old cartoons to match the mesomorphic mariner's speech and habits as closely as possible. The gruff sailor voice he uses in rehearsals is fantastic, and he promises that his grandmother, who creates the company's costumes, will be stitching a giant set of forearm muscles with anchor tattoos. Olive Oyl will speak in that grating warble, Wimpy will scavenge for hamburgers, Brutus will manhandle Olive and throw down with Popeye, and Sea Hag will plot to steal the boodle. It's all very cute and charming, except for those few sappy moments that nearly all musicals seem mandated to include.

The Kirkwood group's Hot Dog Matinee Series has been going strong since the spring of this year, with easy-to-digest musicals of 45 minutes to an hour for kids. The weekly shows, which are followed by hotdogs and soda for all, have included adaptations of Treasure Island, The Little Prince and The Velveteen Rabbit. Characters & Company puts the kiddie shows together in an impressively brief three weeks, sandwiching them between mainstage productions for adults and children, as well as classes and summer camps. Vaughan says that the theater seats 300, and they fill it with audiences of 100-200 for most of the Matinees. "I'm not sure we could handle 300 hotdogs, anyway," he adds. But at $5 for the show and lunch, he says, "you can't beat the price."

Popeye the Sailor features some nifty costuming and makeup, including Olive Oyl's pathetic taste in dresses; a "larger-than-life" Brutus, as Vaughan puts it; and a magnificently ugly Sea Hag with a massive green proboscis, just like in the cartoon.

Cartoon fans will also recognize Popeye's fondness for terrible puns and one-liners, as well as an array of familiar sound effects coaxed from items like cymbals, cowbells, ratchets, slide whistles and triangles. Bernard, the Sea Hag's pet vulture, drops in, and Swee'pea is portrayed by a doll. In keeping with the source material, the plot isn't anything you could call dense. Basically, Popeye is crossed by the Sea Hag and her son, Brutus, and he must somehow get to his purloined spinach to muster the energy to save Olive Oyl and the free world. Along the way there's some fighting, and Wimpy eats a lot of hamburgers.

Directing all this is 15-year-old Carol Rose, sometime actor, choreographer and assistant director for the theater. "I think it is so funny," she says of the script and the way her group is bringing it to life. "It's hilarious ... and we're making it as cartoonish as we can." (For those wondering whether this is the same musical Robert Altman made into a tragically unfunny movie in 1980, the answer is no. This Popeye the Sailor was written years ago by R. Eugene Jackson and Carl Alette for the stage, and it's unrelated to the film flop.)

Characters & Company was founded about 15 years ago and has been forced to move through no less than six different theater spaces before purchasing what co-owner Barbara Vaughan, Mark's mother, says should be the group's final stop, the former Kirkwood Cinema.

They bought the 1936 pink landmark in October of last year and opened for business in March. A number of changes have been made to the interior, including the construction of a temporary stage, but the company still has some work to do. The office and lobby areas become congested easily, and the group is still forced to house the costume and prop shops off-site. With the tight scheduling of the mainstage and Hot Dog Matinee seasons, things can get pretty hectic. This weekend the troupe will mount Yours, Anne, a musical based on the Anne Frank diary, on Friday night, then perform Popeye Saturday morning and then do Anne again Saturday afternoon! Dealing with the sets, costumes and props -- not to mention the rush to the cramped lobby for hotdogs on Saturday morning -- is a feat.

Mark Vaughan says that although some improvements are being made now, he dreams of "being given a million dollars to renovate the interior and exterior ... then we'll name it (the theater) after the million-dollar donor."

For now, it is interesting how much the place still feels so much like a cinema. Walking into the lobby, down the red-carpeted aisles and sitting down in the theater, it seems cool and relaxing. You're ready for the movie (or maybe the cartoon) to start, until you notice that there's no screen.

Mark says he has found that many children are unfamiliar with Popeye but that, for some reason, the thespian talents of Scooby-Doo have attracted renewed attention. He predicts that his musical could undo this grave injustice, but, he adds, under no circumstances does it have the power to make kids like spinach.