One of several recent docus promoting the incalculable educational value of hands-on stagecraft, “The Little Red Truck” follows the Missoula Children’s Theater to towns across the country. Touring pairs of professional actor-directors supply costumes, props, scenery and scripts. They audition, cast and rehearse with 50-60 local kids, mounting hourlong musicals in the positively biblical span of a mere six days. Though neither as timely as HBO’s “Autism: The Musical” nor as complexly layered as “OT: Our Town,” “Truck” nevertheless moves briskly along its matter-of-factly idealistic path, likely headed for PBS or cable.
Intercutting among five diverse groups presenting five different musical plays in five different, geographically far-flung burgs, from Hollywood’s Little Red Schoolhouse to the Inuit Maani Uljik Ilinnarvik School in Rankin Inlet, Canada, director Rob Whitehair stresses both the contrasts and similarities of the parallel productions and the day-by-day progress of the pint-size troupers.
In some locations, first-day auditions succeed in assigning roles to all aspiring thespians in attendance; in other venues, a hundred disappointed wannabes must be diplomatically turned away. Next day, readings and blockings range from the unexpectedly polished professionalism of “The Little Mermaid” at Harrisburg, Pa., to the wholly uncoordinated enthusiasm on the set of “The Frog Prince” in Americus, Ga.
The third day is dedicated to developing the “peewees” in the casts, be they little barnyard animals in Tierra Del Sol School’s “Beauty Lou and the Country Beast” or the surfeit of skunks in the Inuit “Robin Hood.” The dress rehearsals unfold simultaneously, but show wildly differing rates of mastery.
Interviews with dedicated actor-directors, including ex-Missoulan J.K. Simmons (“Juno,” “Burn After Reading”), comment on every stage of the proceedings and describe the larger context of social inequities and scholastic deficiencies, which the program seeks to remedy and balance. To-the-camera asides by 14-year-old reformed gang members or adorable, gap-toothed 5-year olds furnish juvenile assessments of the program’s efficacy.
Sometimes, Whitehair’s rationales for singling out individual kids for closeup attention smacks more of TV-type human-interest coverage than the kind of committed collectivism that governs the overall docu. Pic’s strength lies in charting a dual process, that of a play taking shape in an incredibly short amount time and of the changes wrought in the children’s behavior as they learn to listen, focus, follow directions and work as a team, caught up in an artistic endeavor with its own rhythms, logic and built-in necessities.