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Acting bug, indeed

Victoria Holloway has a balancing act to perform each time she adapts a children's story for the stage, because she knows that if the show is to succeed, it must appeal not only to kids but also to adults.

"I believe good children's theater is good theater," Holloway says. "Children are very sophisticated. They understand nuance. It's a practical issue, too. You want adults to bring their children to the theater, and you want them to enjoy the experience as well, because children's theater really needs to serve the needs of the whole family."

Holloway's latest effort is a musical version of The Cricket in Times Square, George Selden's 1960 book about a cricket from the country who makes it in the big city. It's performed today, Saturday and Sunday at Mahaffey Theater by American Stage Children's Theatre, for which Holloway is artistic director.

As with other shows, Holloway collaborated with composer Lee Ahlin, who will lead the three-piece band that performs onstage.

Which comes first, the words or the music? "It used to be I would write the adaptation and Lee would be a little behind me in the process," she says. "We've found now that we like working together from the get-go. The music and the script happen about the same time."

Holloway figures The Cricket in Times Square is her 18th adaptation. "The first was Star Child in 1981, when we were still Palisades Theater," she says, referring to their first facility on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. "There has been at least one a year since then."

She tries to retain the literary style of the original. "With George Selden, I used a lot of his dialogue, because he wrote very keen dialogue," she says. "His characters were very specifically drawn."

Among her adaptations, she ranks The Cricket in Times Square highly (it has been revised and expanded from a shorter script for a show that toured schools several years ago), along with Cinderella _ The True Story, to be performed at Mahaffey in December.

"I was also very happy with A Family Secret, one of my first ones, written specifically to discuss incest," she says of the 1981 play. "I felt we got to the nerve of the issue. At the time, as a young author with a touchy subject, I thought it was successful."

Holloway wasn't especially happy with her adaptation of Kipling's Jungle Books. "I think we fell a little short," she says. "Kipling's use of heightened language is magnificent, and it was hard to preserve that and keep a good story going. I think it was too wordy. I need to go back and rewrite it."

Children's theater has grown to become a significant part of American Stage's operations, along with its mainstage series and springtime American Stage in the Park shows. The company also has The Firebird, A Russian Tale now on tour to schools.

Holloway and Ahlin have more children's projects on the drawing board. "Lee and I are particularly interested in breathing some life into the classics," she says. "We're thinking about a Moby Dick, a Treasure Island. I'd love to take a look at Jane Eyre."


The Cricket in Times Square

Musical adaptation by Victoria Holloway and Lee Ahlin of George Selden's children's book. American Stage Children's Theater production at Mahaffey Theater. Shows at 7:30 tonight, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $18 for adults and $8 for children 12 and under. Call Mahaffey box office at 892-5767 or Ticketmaster.