It's difficult to predict whether the audience or the 60 cast members will get a bigger kick out of the three performances of "Babes in Toyland" on Saturday, Dec. 7, and Sunday, Dec. 8.
For 48 years, the Baltimore Actors' Theatre has welcomed the holidays by presenting the Victor Herbert operetta known for its poignant theme song, "Toyland," and the storied parade of the wooden soldiers. For nearly 30 years, Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College has been the venue.
Riderwood resident Jack Chamberlain, 87, has played the Master Toymaker in the operetta for 22 years. "I love it," he said. "I get to live in a pretend world and it's so much fun.
"It's a relatively small role — I'm not even in the first act, but it's the center of the show. Everybody goes to see the Toy Maker. I don't have to work very hard and I get a lot of attention."
Two decades of performing at Kraushaar is not the only reason Chamberlain has a deep affection for the college. Chamberlain was a professor of religion at Goucher for 36 years before he retired in 1991. Otto Kraushaar was president of the college when he hired Chamberlain as a young assistant professor.
"Ironically, Kraushaar means curly hair in German," Chamberlain said, "but he was as bald as a ping pong ball."
Billed as "a musical extravaganza," "Babes in Toyland" features a 20-piece orchestra, toys that come to life, colorful nursery rhyme characters, twirling ballerinas and a classic melodrama plot with an arch villain, a heroine, a widow with 12 children, a secret inheritance and a difficult quest. "Babes in Toyland" weaves together various characters from Mother Goose nursery rhymes into a Christmas-themed musical extravaganza.
"It draws people of all ages," Gene Anderson, the show's musical director and conductor, said. "We have people in the audience who came when they were children and now they are bringing their grandchildren with them to see it."
Anderson, as headmaster for Baltimore Actors' Theatre Conservatory, is banking on it. "Babes in Toyland" is the annual fundraiser for the conservatory, a fully accredited college preparatory school for dance, theater and music located in historic Dumbarton House in Rodgers Forge.
All the conservatory children students are used in the show, Anderson said. It gives them a chance to work in a large professional house with an orchestra. Some of graduates come back to participate in it.
It's "like a reunion, a nice way to begin the holidays," he said.
Baltimore Actors Theatre founder and conservatory artistic director Helen Grigal, who has directed the production since 1965, agreed.
"Just like the audience, the cast members keep coming back. It's a wondrous experience for everybody. How can we miss?"
For 30 years, Greg Mank, 62, has donned the black cloak and top hat to play the evil villain Uncle Barnaby, who plots to force marriage on heroine Mary Contrary, who oves another.
"I was hooked in December of 1983 [playing Uncle Barnaby] when I came skulking on stage at the Lyric and 2,000 people hissed," said Mank, 62, who grew up in Towson but lives in Pennsylvania. "It was great, an an incredible sensation."
Since then, Mank said he has fractured a rib one year, and an ankle another year: "Helen directs a high energy show."
Although Mank has played the villain for 30 years, there have been 10 or so different actresses who have played Mary Contrary in that time.
"It's always a different dynamic each year as the cast members change characters as they grow or or new members join the group," Mank said.
Despite Uncle Barnaby's foibles, "the audience really loves him," Mank said. "He's a hoot. And kids sympathize with him. He's alone and friendless, the classic childhood fears."
When the show is over, the cast goes to the lobby to meet audience members, Mank said. Children either cower in fear or shake hands when they meet Uncle Barnaby.
"One little 5-year-old girl told me she felt sorry for me because nobody would marry me. 'I'll marry you,' she said, 'but if I do, can we get a dog?' " Mank said.
Chldren especially love the show, and it's just as enjoyable for the children in the cast.
"I love it here," said Peyton Brown, 13, of Hampton. "If I'm having a bad day, I can get on stage and be a different character and forget about what is wrong. And if I mess up, I put on a bright face and nobody knows."
Her brother, Coleman, 9, said he doesn't get nervous on stage. "I don't really worry," he said. "I can't do better than my best and I try as hard as I can."
"I just do it for fun," said Darby Brandenburg, 12, of Campus Hills, who has appeared as a nursery rhymer, a puppet and one of the Widow Piper's 12 children during her five years in the cast.
This is the first year, for Ligia Mardari, 12, of Towson, who said the singing and dancing makes her happy. "I just enjoy it," she said.
Ligia, who is part of the production for the first time this year, realized in the fourth grade that she liked to make an impact on people, she said. She fondly recalled appearing in the school play, "Pecos Bill," and the child that approached her afterward who asked her to pose for a photograph.
"Babes in Toyland" performance dates are Saturday, Dec. 7, at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 8, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $12 for children 12 and younger. Group rates are available. Call the ticketing service, Flavorus, at 1-855-235-2867 to purchase tickets.