Puss in Boots at York Little Theatre
The classic tale of a cunning cat opens Feb. 15 at York Little Theatre. (www.ylt.org)

Layered under the fashion and wit of "Puss in Boots" are timeless lessons suitable for all ages.

"In addition to capturing the essence of the classic fairy tale, it really stays fresh and relevant to current audiences," says Phil Rooney, who's directing the stage adaptation this month at York Little Theatre. "It's a tale of healthy ambition, learning to stand up for yourself and what it means to be a friend."

Rooney knows a little something about healthy ambition. After nearly a decade of acting and crew work at the theater, he's taking his turn in the director's chair for the first time. The 19-year-old from Spring Garden Township is juggling his new duties with his freshman year at Millersville University and his involvement with the campus musical organization, which this year is putting on "Legally Blonde."

"I never envisioned myself directing," he says. "But as a director, I've been able to watch everything fall into place, and it's been just incredible."

Children everywhere: "Everything" for "Puss in Boots" includes a cast of more than 30 children and large ensemble scenes - even a Mardi Gras parade - that call for a lot of planning.

"They are a talented group of kids," Rooney says. "It's been a lot of fun working with them to put this production together."

Also working with Rooney is producer Rodd Robertson, a 51-year-old West Manchester Township resident and York Little Theatre veteran.

"It's just fantastic to watch (Rooney) work with these kids," Robertson says. "He's been in enough shows that he has the sensitivity to know what the actor is going through and not to push them too fast."

A steady hand at the wheel can make an enormous difference in young actors' performances, Robertson says.

"I think working with kids, as we are with 'Puss in Boots,' it's remarkable to know that you're helping to create something in them, to build and instill in them a sense of what theater is about," he says. "You're having an influence on them in a very positive way. ... They're gaining lifelong friendships."

Progression: Rooney himself started acting with the theater when he was 10, in the traveling children's show "Blue Horses." The fun brought him back for more productions, and he added to his acting experience by volunteering on the stage crew, the lighting, the costumes and other production elements.

"I just fell in love with the theater," he says, citing the theater's 2008 production of "The Three Musketeers" as a personal favorite. Rooney played the young swashbuckler d'Artagnan.

"The show involved an incredible amount of stage combat and swordplay, and I just had so much fun with that on stage," he says.

The mix of fun, humor and adventure is one shared by "Puss in Boots," in which a cunning cat lands his master the life of his dreams.

Puss in Boots at York Little Theatre
Zak DePorter plays the title character from "Puss in Boots" during a dress rehearsal of the production at York Little Theatre. (YLT photo)
It's not a long play, Robertson adds, but "a comfortable length for a child" to sit and pay attention.

"Kids love it because it's silly, and the adults love it because there's humor in there for them," Robertson says. "The kids won't even know they're learning a lesson."

See the show

"Puss in Boots" runs for two weekends at York Little Theatre, 27 S. Belmont St., Spring Garden Township. The updated fairy tale is set in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century, where the red-booted feline will face off with arrogant aristocracy and dangerous magic.

Guests will be able to meet adoptable cats from the York County SPCA and their volunteer handlers in the lobby.

Performances start at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Feb. 15, 16, 22 and 23, and at 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Feb. 16, 17, 23 and 24. The performance at 3 p.m. Feb. 23 is designed to offer a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere for children with special needs. A free behind-the-scenes tour will follow the 7 p.m. performance on Feb. 16.

Tickets are $10.

For more information, call 854-5715 or visit www.ylt.org.

- Reach Mel Barber at mbarber@yorkdispatch.com.