Playing the piper: Ryan takes his show on the road

"A story! A story! Tell us a story!" shouts a chorus of young voices on Peter Ryan's newest CD.

Never heard of Peter Ryan? You must not have an aspiring thespian in the house.

Ryan has been creating and producing children's musical productions in Charlottesville for six years now, developing a significant following in the under-16 set. Typically, he stages two shows a year, each of which is an adaptation of classic children's literature to which he adds a modern twist, a bit of multigenerational humor, and original music. As long as parents pay the production fee, every kid who tries out gets to perform.

The new disc is called Dream On: A Musical Adventure, a sort of greatest hits from several Ryan productions strung together with a new storyline about a boy who gets lost in fantasy. The CD is currently available locally, but Ryan hopes to expand the collection to a two-disk set and market it, together with a book, nationally.

Ryan, who declines to reveal his age but appears to be well into middle age, started out as a fiction writer and playwright. Only out of necessity did he discover the joy of musical composition.

"I started writing [songs] because I needed them for plays," says Ryan, who calls writing music for kids "half inspiration and half fitting together the pieces of a puzzle."

Unmarried with no kids of his own, this Pied Piper of children's musical theater typically attracts upwards of 100 would-be actors for each production.

Ten-year-old Caitlan Tignor, who appears as "Lisa" on the CD and has performed in most of Ryan's productions for the past five years, loves being on stage. "It's really fun to memorize the lines and to be seen by all those people," she says.

Debbie Swanson, whose nine-year-old daughter, McKenzie, performed in the December production of Alice in Wonderland, says McKenzie had the time of her life thanks to Ryan.

"He's great with kids," Swanson says. "My daughter loves dancing and really enjoys Peter's wit."

But Caitlan's mother, Kinda Sandridge, who has helped backstage on several productions, offers a mixed review. "He's very artistic and writes wonderful stuff," Sandridge says, "but he's not good at delegating responsibility."

"I'm notoriously late," admits Ryan, saying the tedium of details bores him. "I'm more of an artist," he claims. "I'd make a terrible businessman."

Nevertheless, business has been brisk. He's now producing two runs with separate casts each season, and has begun creating shows in Richmond and in New York's Westchester County, where the formula he developed in Charlottesville is tempting even more children to the musical stage. With the possibility of a national market for his CDs, who knows how far this Piper's tune may soon be heard?