It sounds like the beginning of a really bad SNL skit: "A Children's Story by Oscar Wilde." But the reality of Wilde Tales, receiving its world premiere with Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, turns out to be something quite different.
Wilde did write short stories for children (he had two kids of his own, after all), and Wilde Tales is a musical dramatization of his "The Happy Prince" and the slightly better known "The Selfish Giant." Both offer the same sort of message -- how the innocent must suffer for the greater good -- and both are heavily perfumed with wacky Christian allegories about sacrifice, death and rebirth. And since the stories reflect the inside of Wilde's Art Noveau mind as well as the Victorian-era perception of humanity -- that it was fairly rotten -- they are curious tales to tell children. In both stories, the main characters die ... but it's a happy ending, see, because they go to live with God.
During the first half, "Prince," I was wondering just who the audience was supposed to be for this show: The material's a little too bleak and removed for children, and more cartoonish than adults would care for. Bruce Dow's musical score (he's also librettist and lyricist) seemed promising, although I wasn't crazy about the Fantasticks-styled framework: A bunch of actors assemble to tell a story using old costumes and props from a trunk. Nothing was less than skilled, but by the same token, nothing was standing out.
It's in the second act that Wilde Tales really takes off. The story "Selfish Giant" is Wilde at the top of his game -- the structure is perfect and Wilde's words and images gorgeous -- and Dow's musicalization is just ... shimmering. That's really the only word for it: The second half simply shimmers.
A good deal of that is due to Sheila McKenna's direction, which manages the trick of being invisible and superlative at the same time. Andre Koslowski's expressive choreography and Melissa Yanchak's musical direction provide essential back-up to the wonderfully supple and focused performances of David Cabot, Kelley Krepin DeFade, Joshua Desjardins, Jamie Fair and Kelsey Robinson. And a big shout-out to Meredith S. Murphy for her lovely costume design.
I'm still not sure how much kids will like it, but if you can drag them away from Grand Theft Auto IV, it's your perfect reward.
Wilde Tales continues through Sat., May 31. Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org