`Enchanted Musical Playhouse' series fills gap in home video for children

Home videocassettes are being rushed to market these days to meet the demand of a booming audience. But there's at least one serious gap -- original material for children. Some estimates put the number of VCRs in United States homes at about 22 million (and counting). Studies show that parents are likely to bring a kid's show home with them every time they go out to rent or buy a cassette for themselves. Yet the pickings for kids are surprisingly slim, given this demand, and what parents end up with for their children often turns out to be old cartoons or films the kids have already seen.

Enter ``The Enchanted Musical Playhouse,'' a new series of half-hour programs for three- to eight-year-olds produced by King of Video -- rather surprisingly, since that company is better known as the producer of no fewer than 40 horror titles. The new shows, which can be rented or bought ($29.95), may not be the answer to a parent's dream (or a child's, for that matter), but they are a welcome step in serving young children.

In their approach to this age level, the first two cassettes -- ``The Velveteen Rabbit'' and ``The Steadfast Tin Soldier'' -- are long on feeling and strive to offer certain implicit lessons of life, but tend to be a little short on a production quality best described as ``magic.'' In children's shows, this precious commodity is usually a mix of invention, lyricism, and wonder -- a very hard recipe to prepare.

``The Velveteen Rabbit,'' is a richly costumed musical fable starring Marie Osmond (with only her face visible in a rabbit costume throughout most of the show). Based on the Margery Williams book, the story follows the high and low points in a little boy's life as his stuffed rabbit becomes ``real.'' This message about love and faithful service is one not everyone will agree with, and the video story, echoing a particularly graphic aspect of the book, contains a somber though brief illness scene. But ot herwise the production's pleasing simplicity should work well for its target audience of tots. The 19th-century sets feature eye-filling details, and Marie's bouncy songs -- sounding faintly like vaudeville routines -- add a much-needed verve.

It's the delightful skills of Shields and Yarnell, the renowned mime couple, which enliven the second release -- ``The Steadfast Tin Soldier.'' The team adds just the intensity of movement and life needed in the retelling of this fairy tale from Hans Christian Andersen. In fact, they make you wish the production had turned them loose on more of the material.

This treatment of the familiar story about the triumph of bravery and faith in a toy soldier includes real dance routines that capitalize on the mime duo's compelling talents. And in one scene Yarnell gets a chance to display her potent comic technique, when she appears as a caterpillar who happens on the soldier -- while he's stuck in the ground -- and tries to learn what kind of vegetation he is.

The third cassette -- to be available in September -- is a musical version of the familiar Munro Leaf story ``Ferdinand the Bull,'' starring singer-composer-actor Paul Williams. Also next month, the ``Enchanted Musical Playhouse'' series will begin airing on the Disney pay-TV channel.

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