Aug. 12 2009 12:00 AM

Riverwalk stages premiere kids’ show by local playwright



It started with a simple gift for the boy next door. But unlike the typical present, this one quickly blossomed into something bigger than itself: a gift to be shared with all of Lansing, youth and parents alike.

This isn’t the back-story behind a memorial scholarship or a commemorative plaque; it’s the tale of how “Thunderhoof and the Prince” came to be. The play is a departure from Riverwalk’s usual children’s shows, which often feature tried-and-true classics, like “James and the Giant Peach,” and “Pinocchio.”

“Thunderhoof,” by Lansing’s Fran Johnson, spins a charming yarn about a prince and his noble steed, a horse of considerable presence and a character in his own right.

“The story started out as a gift for the little boy who lived next door to me, who had adopted me as his grandma,” Johnson said. “The story was originally called ‘The Happy Prince,’ and after turning it into an illustrated story book, I started to think that it might make a good idea for a play. I’ve been a patron of Riverwalk for a long time, so I began developing the story with them, and eventually it turned into ‘Thunderhoof and the Prince.’”

It took more than two years to bring “Thunderhoof” from the page to the stage. In addition to Johnson’s thoroughly entertaining book, soaked in healthy doses of wry wit (“It’s a children’s show for adults, like ‘Shrek’,” she said), a musical score by 2 Johnson’s Thunderhoof frequent - 8/12 collaborator, & 19 Yvonne Whitmore, rounds out the enchanting story.

Costumer Skip Panek said no specific pattern was set before she began bringing Thunderhoof to life, but she did look at a lot of pictures of horses for inspiration. “We ended up using lots of foam rubber to piece the body together and framed the whole thing around an old laundry hamper that I had lying around at my house,” Panek said. “When it comes to costuming, you’ve got to go with what you have that’s available and cheap.”

As good as the costume turned out, Panek said it’s the contributions of Brian Stratton, the actor inside the horse, who really brings the play’s star to life.

“Thunderhoof only really becomes a horse when Brian puts the costume on,” Panek said. “The costume is always just a bag of fabric until someone puts it on. The actor and the costume complement each other, but the character doesn’t come to life until the actor really steps into the outfit and the role.”

Director Dan Pappas called working on the original show “a joy.”

“With an untested piece like this, we’re allowed a lot of creativity and risk, since we’re all doing this show for the first time in its history,” he said. “Prior to ‘Thunderhoof,’ I had directed [Lansing Civic Players’] ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ and being a part of that transition from a larger-scale production to something original and local has been absolutely amazing.”

“Thunderhoof and the Prince.” 7 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Aug. 14 - 23. Riverwalk Theater, 228 Museum Drive, Lansing. $5 /$7. (517) 482-5700.