Most parents who grew up watching Sesame Street harbor at least a small soft spot for puppets. Mine happens to be extra cushy: I can't get enough of the strung-up dudes. And neither can my four-year-old son, Giovanni, who often spends his days transforming old socks into players for his shows. Thinking my budding puppeteer might benefit from a little inspiration, I took him to see productions at three children's companies. Each one, surprisingly, delivered a truly unique experience.
At this retro storefront theater in Park Slope, kids sit cross-legged on a mat facing the stage while grown-ups hunker down on bleachers behind them. Intricate marionettes hang along the wall—a formation the puppeteers refer to as "a long unemployment line." The figures are also a preshow conversation-starter for the pip-squeaks ("There's Cinderella! I saw that show. Did you?"). Almost all 45 minutes of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp riveted Giovanni, except for the yawn-inducing romantic scenes. He especially liked seeing a gargantuan-seeming actor play the genie. As for me, I loved that the prerecorded soundtrack was taken from the Russian ballet Gayane. How often does my son get to hear Aram Khachaturian suites?
Giovanni's verdict: "This show is funny for kids, but babies might think the puppets are real."
Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp plays through Aug 23.
Musicians and singers perform alongside hand, rod, shadow and Japanese Bunraku-style puppets (this month's production features 25 puppets). Giovanni was unconvinced that the actors wearing bear suits in the show we saw counted as legitimate "life-size puppets," but the other novelty—a bilingual script—didn't faze him. Thanks to dynamic performers who wove together Spanish and English seamlessly, my monolingual kiddo didn't miss a beat.
Giovanni's verdict: "Those are puppets? They just look like people going to a Halloween party."
La Muela del Rey Farfn/The Toothache of King Farfn plays Jul 9--12.
Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre
Known for clever updates of classic stories, the cozy Central Park Cottage doesn't disappoint with Peter Pan—the Lost Boys escape to Never Land from strollers in Manhattan's most famous green space. Dozens of nimbly handled marionettes dance across vivid sets, including a nursery where night-lights shine, an underwater reef inhabited by mermaids and the hull of a ship. The voice talent (all prerecorded) is stellar, especially the gravely Hook laid down by Jay O. Sanders, who played Hamlet's father in last year's production at Shakespeare in the Park. Giovanni and the rest of the kids went wild when the crocodile finished off the pirate captain. My heart soared when Pan convinced the small fry to avow their faith in fairies by applauding Tinker Bell back to life.
Giovanni's verdict: "We took three trains, but it was worth it."
Peter Pan and Adventures in Never Land plays through August.