Inside the new rehearsal hall at The Sofia theater complex, the thumping of Indian drums creates an infectious beat. The young ensemble of actors move fluidly around the set, refining lyrics and steps as they go.
In an unexpected musical tribute to iconic leader Mahatma Gandhi, there’s a multi-layered message behind the ensemble’s words and actions, designed to capture the imagination of young audience members. Besides a history lesson with hummable tunes, “Gandhi! The Musical” delivers on B Street’s long-held promise: Theater can be fun (and educational) for any age.
With its Saturday premiere, “Gandhi!” officially opens B Street’s new Family Series space, the Sutter Theatre for Children. California’s first year-round professional theater for kids, The Sutter is the second (and largest) stage at the company’s 48,000-square-foot Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts at Capitol Avenue and 27th Street in midtown Sacramento.
Lyndsay Burch, B Street’s artistic producer and move manager, wrote and directed “Gandhi!,” juggling her playwrighting around orchestrating the company’s relocation to The Sofia.
“We want to introduce children to theater as much as teach about certain figures,” said Burch, who traveled to India to research the musical. “When I went to India, I was overwhelmed by its beauty.”
B Street’s Family Series has explored other historical figures such as women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the Wright brothers, the pioneering aviators, she noted.
Such a theatrical approach isn’t restricted to kids shows. “Hamilton” made bio-musical history cool again.
The roots of this show can be traced to a sister company relationship between B Street and an Indian theater, which presented a non-musical play in 2016 about the life of Gandhi, Burch explained.
“We all thought, how great would it be to adapt that to our Family Series?” she said. “It’s not just about the man, but peaceful resistance, equality, important messages that resonate today, told through Gandhi’s story.”
“It’s just the type of thing we needed to open this big space,” she added.
With 15 songs, “Gandhi!” follows the “parallel journeys” of young Mo and his namesake, Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi. An American schoolkid of Indian descent, Mo gets bullied and acts out, ending up in detention where his teacher assigns him to read Gandhi’s autobiography, “My Experiments with Truth.” Instead of punishment, the book opens a world of self discovery for young Mo.
“Mohandas, don’t forget your name, don’t be ashamed,” Mo sings. “Now, I’ve got to read this book, forced to give my heritage a second look.”
In their B Street debuts, Danish Farooqui plays Mo and Mehul Gulati portrays Gandhi.
Choreographer Angela Todaro created the Bollywood/hip-hop dance sequences set to original music by veteran composer Noah Agruss. Both are based in Los Angeles.
“I immersed myself in Indian classical music,” Agruss said during a break in rehearsal. “I became fascinated by it. I mixed it with hip-hop and Bollywood. Hopefully, it’s respectful of all styles of music identified with India.”
Besides his work in film and TV, Agruss has written the music for more than 20 B Street productions including “Spinning into Light,” “Bars and Measures” and a Family Series adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.”
“I think theater is invaluable to children,” Agruss said. “It teaches so many things. It instills a sense of fair play and values. It gives kids a sense of humor, too.”
In its creation of The Sofia’s $30 million complex, B Street bet big on children’s theater. Home to the company’s Family Series, the new Sutter Theatre holds 365 seats, about double B Street’s former children’s stage.
B Street is one of only a handful of top professional theaters nationwide recognized for devotion to children’s productions including the creation of new material, noted Buck Busfield, B Street’s producing artistic director. (Other big players in children’s theater include companies in Seattle, Minneapolis and Charlotte, N.C.)
Children’s theater is in a growth mode, he noted. It’s far outpacing attendance for adult audiences, which have steadily declined.
While professional theater attendance has been flat (or falling) overall since 2011, attendance for kids’ productions has grown about 12 percent over five years, according to a recent report by the Theatre Communications Group. Income from children’s productions climbed by 24 percent over that same period.
That’s prompted more productions aimed specifically at kids, said the report, with the hope that young audiences grow up to be theater fans. Still, children’s theater represents a small slice of America’s playhouse pie – about 4 percent of total attendance.
The importance of presenting theater specifically for young people goes back to B Street’s roots. For three decades, the company has dedicated itself to presenting top class live entertainment to children while instilling a love of theater.
In fact, Theatre for Children Inc. was B Street’s original name in 1986 when actor Timothy Busfield, Buck’s brother, founded the Sacramento company. Designed as a touring ensemble, it morphed into the B Street Theatre School Tour that is still going strong today, presenting shows to an estimated 200,000 students each year throughout Northern California. By B Street’s count, more than 3.6 million kids have seen a show on its school tours.
“The school tour goes as far as (the players) can go in a day and come back (to Sacramento),” Agruss said. “It covers a lot of ground.”
The larger Sutter Theatre allows B Street to bring more schoolchildren to its home and see a full production on a big Broadway-size stage.
With a dozen singing and dancing cast members, “Gandhi!” makes use of that bigger space. It’s the largest production ever staged by the B Street’s Family Series.
“We’ve been doing theater for kids for 30 years,” Buck Busfield said. “This takes it to another level.”
Gandhi!: The Musical
Where: B Street Theatre @ The Sophia, 2700 Capitol Ave., Sacramento
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24; also 1 p.m. March 4, 10 and 11
Tickets: $23 adults, $18 children (limited availability; call box office)
Details: 916-443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org