By Marc Shulgold
Sorry folks, but the Colorado Music Festival’s Saturday morning Family Concert won’t feature a live elephant. However, if the young people in Chautauqua Auditorium will use their imaginations, the beloved pachyderm Babar will come to life before their eyes.
Of course, Michael Boudewyns will have something to do with that. Boudewyns (pronounced BOW-da-win) stars in the Festival’s performance of The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, using the music of French composer Francis Poulenc (played by the Festival Orchestra) and a few clever props to re-create Jean de Brunhoff’s 1931 tale of an orphaned elephant who rises from rags to riches to become a king. Also on the program is a kooky performance of the Toy Symphony.
Boudewyns and his wife Sara make up the performing team Really Inventive Stuff (RIS), last visiting Boulder during the Festival’s 2019 season when the duo charmed a full house of kids and grown-ups with Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals.
All those animals back then emerged in delightful fashion, thanks to a collection of clever props nimbly manipulated by Michael and Sara. That was comparatively easy. But…an elephant? How is that going to happen? Simple: Babar will be depicted by a cut-out letter B – small when our hero is a baby, larger when he grows up. And Babar’s ill-fated mother? A long gray sack serves as her trunk and a large gray tarp as Mom’s torso.
“The (show’s) design has evolved over the years,” Boudewyns said in a conversation from his home in Gorham, Maine. “For instance, at first we used poles (to support the tarp and some costumes). But now we use coat racks. Later on, Sara and I added some dancing.” That celebratory moment features a frolic with a long-necked flamingo puppet.
The use of props requiring some active imagining among audience members adds to the fun at an RIS show – and is a big part of Boudewyns’ performing philosophy. He aims to inspire his young fans into creating their own inventive stuff. “I’ve learned that some of the kids went home (after a concert) and made up their own show,” he says.
This version of Babar is not drawn literally from De Brunhoff’s book. “Yes, we’re telling the story, but we’re not re-creating the illustrations in the book,” Boudewyns points out, describing his abstract approach as “like a Monet watercolor.”
Saturday’s return visit by RIS will be a bit different this time around. Since Sara Valentine will be absent due to a scheduling conflict, Boudewyns will be on his own. But he’s unconcerned. “It’s fun with two people but equally fun with one,” he insists. Minus his wife and performing partner, he’ll make the trip from Maine to Colorado solo, lugging all the props in his van.
“Yep, just me,” he says of the cross-country journey. “While I drive, I have the music going. I keep listening to the music I’ll be performing, even after doing all those shows. It’s a reminder that every performance is different.” Unpredictability has long been a feature of RIS’s programs. And that occasionally extends to the preparation time, since the reliance on all those props can occasionally create unexpected problems. Case in point: the Toy Symphony, which requires the use of several noise-making instruments typically found in a child’s playroom – but on one occasion, sadly missing from RIS’ touring trunk. (We’ll get to that in a minute).
Sporting a ridiculous mustache, a thick Austrian accent, and a vintage leather flyer’s helmet, Boudewyns (now appearing as the equally ridiculous Professor Tympanium van Hammer zee Trumpeterclangor) offers a tour de force as the multi-instrumental soloist in the charming Toy Symphony by … well, who actually composed it? Was it Mozart’s papa, Leopold? Was it Franz Joseph Haydn? His kid brother Michael? “We really don’t know,” our soloist acknowledges. “But I think that’s fun.”
No matter. Through the years, the seven-minute piece for chamber orchestra has remained a real crowd-pleaser, notably for its use of such non-traditional instruments as toy trumpet, ratchet, bird whistle, chime tree, and glockenspiel. Almost all of the solo instruments are mounted on a “portable lab,” the name given by Boudewyns to describe Sara’s clever contraption, a rolling set-up that was constructed from numerous visits to antique stores. An addition to this onstage instrumental zoo is the two-note whistle of the cuckoo, which will be provided by the children in attendance, who’ll be cued by the wave of a red flag. “That idea came from a performance we did in St. Louis,” the Professor recalls. “The Symphony wanted audience participation, so we decided to have the kids act as our cuckoo when needed.”
Switching nimbly from bird whistle to ratchet to (we’re not making this up) garden hose, Professor What’s-His-Name manages to handle most of the solo chores – as long as all of his instruments are in place. Once in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, however, such was not the case. “When we arrived, we realized we’d forgotten to pack the bird whistle,” Boudewyns says. “Sara had to go hunting all over town. But we had a happy ending.”
No chance of a recurrence: “After that close call,” he adds, “we went out and bought double sets of everything.”