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Kids production created right in our own backyard

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Playtime: Backyardigans artistic director Patti Caplette gets in the middle of the fun.

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Playtime: Backyardigans artistic director Patti Caplette gets in the middle of the fun.

Among the preschool set, the Backyardigans are like the Beatles.

Debuting in 2004 and running until 2010, the Emmy-winning Nelvana/Nick Jr. TV show -- which follows the five friends as they use their imaginations to go on thrilling adventures -- is seen in over 40 countries; in North America alone, almost one-million viewers tune in per episode.

So, when the Backyardigans come to town, it's a very big deal.

Patti Caplette is the choreographer, director and writer behind The Backyardigans: Sea Deep in Adventure, one of three popular touring shows based on the hit TV show conceptualized by Koba Entertainment, the Winnipeg-based company responsible for high-calibre theatrical adaptations of a host of family-friendly properties, including Toopy and Binoo, Max & Ruby and Dora the Explorer.

The Backyardigans: Sea Deep in Adventure was inspired by the aquatic scene in another show. "It was just such a great visual scene that I wanted to expand it into its own show," says Caplette, who is also Koba's artistic director. "There's such wonderful creatures underwater. It makes for a entertaining show."

In Caplette's capable hands, the beloved fivesome -- Pablo, Tyrone, Tasha, Uniqua and Austin -- are submerged in an underwater adventure involving everything from an octopus's garden to a jellyfish ballet. Tapping into her own imagination is one of the highlights of her job.

"I'm a little kid at heart even though the years are creeping up. I love coming up with crazy ideas. I love that we never say no to an idea right away. We try to create all the crazy things in our head," she says.

Caplette pays close attention to detail to ensure the adaptation retains the integrity of the original property. She studies the original scripts to make sure she understands the characters and their interactions with each other.

"I consider whether or not the scenes should have a traditional look or if we should use projections. There's all kinds of challenges -- TV can go so much faster than theatre, but theatre has a life of its own. I'm bringing these characters we know and love into my world."

When it comes to choreography, coming up with ideas for the Backyardigans is a joy, she says.

"Fortunately, they are dancers and singers -- they were created to be that way on the TV show. That makes my job happier, instead of taking characters who never dance and make them dance.

"And it's always tremendous having the music of Evan Lurie."

Lurie, an American musician and composer who, along with his brother John Lurie, founded the punk-jazz outfit the Lounge Lizards in 1978, composed the original songs for the TV show. His music is what sets the Backyardigans apart: each episode features a different (and usually hyper-specific) musical genre. Mambo, western swing, hip hop, Irish jigs and '60s Italian pop are just a few of the styles Lurie has experimented with on the show.

"It's really quite something. When every show is a different genre, you start realizing how specific you had to get, it got a lot more complicated. You can't just do a Brazilian show; we did a samba show and a bossa nova show. Then you need to have certain musicians and you need to consider the style they play in. If we're doing a rockabilly show, then I'd bring a Gretsch instead of a Fender Stratocaster. It was an enormous undertaking," he says.

It was also a fun undertaking, he adds: "Monday, we'd have a bluegrass band, Tuesday we'd have 20 string players -- every day was an adventure, just like the show itself."

Lurie, who has also composed film scores for actor-directors such as Roberto Benigni, Stanley Tucci, Steve Buscemi and Philip Seymour Hoffman, wasn't in the business of "dumbing-down" music for kids. He respects them too much.

"One of my aims was to present a lot of music they wouldn't hear otherwise. We didn't pay much lip service to the fact it was for five year olds. We wanted it to be true to the genre. I think I did have one or two songs that were sent back for being too sad, but we wanted it to sound real. I do think (kids) hear that this isn't cheap. Nick (Jr.) gave me the money to do it, which is why it sounds the way it does. That's pretty unusual for TV."

Lurie's original music certainly electrifies the live show, which Caplette says offers a completely different experience than TV.

"When (kids) have the experience of being able to feel their favourite character pass by, when they know they're in the same space, it's thrilling," she says.

"The screams from the audience -- it's like any rock star. There's nothing better than seeing little faces all lit up. Kids don't fake it. When they're genuinely excited, they don't sit politely, they don't clap politely. They keep us honest and energetic."

That could go a long way in explaining Koba's success. The company -- whose shows have been presented in 165 North American cities and 12 countries, including Canada, the U.S., France, Switzerland, Korea, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates -- celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2014 and will tour its 40th production in September.

Caplette says many folks don't realize, a decade later, that these touring productions are being produced right here in Winnipeg.

"We do have a studio in Toronto, but we utilize a lot of talent that has come out of the Winnipeg theatre scene. We put on hundreds of shows a year. We're proud to be from Winnipeg, and we're proud to teach the whole world where Winnipeg is," she says.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 G12

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