Best NYC Summer Theater for Kids: Four Must-See Family Shows
A lot of people think the dog days of summer are a cultural wasteland and that all the cool openings won't start happening again until fall. But that's not the case when it comes to kids' shows. Right now, New York City's family theater scene is hotter than the heat wave.
Over the past few weeks, my seven-year-old daughter and I have seen four shows that we both really enjoyed. Each production is aimed at different ages and interests, and all are budget-friendly. One is even FREE. From an educational exploration of the Civil War to a musicalization of a popular children's book to a great glow-in-the-dark novelty act, here are four family theater shows playing this summer that are worth your time and money.
Sleepover – Flatiron
Through Saturday, August 3. Visit the website for the complete schedule.
TADA! Youth Theater, 15 West 28th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue
$20 for adults, $8 for children
Ages 6 and up
I'm always raving about the musicals at TADA! because they're all originals (not junior versions of Broadway shows) and they star talented local youngsters ages 8 to 18. On the cusp of tweendom, my daughter was the perfect age for Sleepover, which chronicles the G-rated adventures of a group of girls when the boys crash their party. It's very sweet and a bit silly (there's a goofy sleepwalking number), and perfect for short attention spans since it's just under an hour. While there's nothing objectionable for younger kids, children who are old enough to have gone on sleepovers (and understand their pitfalls and politics, like who gets invited) will enjoy it most. Bonus: The first row is reserved for audience members under 10. My daughter always feels like a VIP when she gets to sit up front.
The Civil War – West Village
Through Friday, August 16. Visit the website for the complete schedule.
121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Hudson Streets
FREE; tickets are given out on a first-come, first-served basis an hour prior to each performance
Ages 9 and up
Every summer, TheatreworksUSA mounts a professional Off-Broadway show for family audiences and gives away the tickets at no cost. Often the productions are aimed at all ages and based on children's books, but The Civil War is an anomaly. A historical musical that uses authentic period songs, the show tells the story from the point of view of soldiers on both sides. In order to get the most out of it, kids really need at least a cursory knowledge of the war and slavery, so it's aimed at children ages 9 and up. I tried to give my seven-year-old a crash course before we went but she kept asking, "Which side am I rooting for?" A difficult question, since the show works hard to humanize everyone involved. Even slavery is dealt with quickly and carefully (no derogatory terms, no torture, etc.) That said, she loved the songs and even recognized a few ("I Wish I Was in Dixie" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"), and the five hard-working actors, who play all the many parts, are superb. Kids aren't going to learn everything there is to know about the Civil War in an one-hour musical, but it's a gentle and balanced introduction to a difficult period in our country's history. Plus it's FREE.
Wanda's Monster – Union Square
Through Sunday, September 8. Visit the website for the complete schedule.
Vineyard Theatre’s Dimson Theatre, 108 East 15th Street between Union Square East and Irving Place
Ages 3 and up
On the other end of the age spectrum is Wanda's Monster, a delightful musical based on Eileen Spinelli's picture book of the same name. Produced by Making Books Sing and featuring songs by kiddie rock goddess Laurie Berkner, the show originally played this past spring and was such a success that it's back for a summer encore. My daughter and I saw it in April and although she initially whined that it was a "baby show" she ended up really liking it. A simple story about a kindergartner who, at the urging of her cool grandma, befriends the lonely monster in her closet, Wanda's is definitely best for preschoolers (though a few did cry at the sight of the creature, even though he was bright purple and orange and fuzzy). It sends a great message about facing your fears instead of hiding under the blanket, and has super-catchy tunes. School-age kids will probably think they're too cool for Wanda's but preschoolers should eat it up. Bonus: Kids can meet the cast and pose for pics with the monster (who is adorably neurotic) after the show. Get discounted Wanda's Monster tickets through our affiliate partner Goldstar.
iLuminate: Artist of Light – Midtown West
Open-ended. Visit the website for the complete schedule.
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues
Ages 4 and up
Out of all the shows we went to see this summer, this is the one I didn't expect to like. But it turned out to be my daughter's favorite and I found to my surprise that I was charmed by it, too. Best known for their stint on America's Got Talent in 2011, the performers in iLuminate wear colorful light-up costumes and perform wordless dance theater in the dark. Yes it's a gimmick but a good one. While the story is kind of cheesy (an artist and his friends venture into another dimension to retrieve his magic paintbrush), the visuals are an eye-popping delight and there are lots of awesome special effects. Plus you can pose with the cast afterward and check out their high-tech costumes up close. Since it's a commercial Off-Broadway production, iLuminate is by far the most expensive show, but it's quite memorable and a great choice for kids who aren't into traditional theater. Get discounted iLuminate: Artist of Light tickets through our affiliate partner Goldstar.
Find out about other great seasonal activities in our Summer Fun Guide.
Places featured in this article:
TADA! Youth Theater
Lucille Lortel Theater
New World Stages