Dougherty Arts Center, through June 22
Running Time: 1 hr, 10 min
There's at least one thing that children seem to like more than animals: talking animals. Even more popular than verbal fauna, though, is verbal, musical fauna: What Disney or Pixar confection hasn't used children's love of both beast and song to help reel in their masses of sticky-faced, diminutive fans?
This fascination with singing, talking animals didn't start with the golden age of Mickey Mouse; it's also the basis for plenty of fairy tales, including the classic "The Musicians of Bremen Town," written by the Brothers Grimm around 1910. In the story, four animals deemed too old to be useful by their owners flee their grisly fates in hopes of becoming Bremen town musicians.
Playwright-composer Allen Robertson has adapted this story into a children's musical, setting the tale in Depression-era rural America instead of a German hamlet. Robertson's version is filled with gospel and bluegrass tunes instead of German folk music, and in keeping with the dust bowl setting, it stresses the theme of hope in trying times. Fittingly, the music of the play truly is uplifting. The songs' lyrics are penned with grace and humor, and they often swell with unexpected harmonies and unpredictable melody lines. "Free," the animals' anthem, and the spiritual "I'll Be There" gave me goose bumps, an uncommon reaction in a children's play. The success of the music in the current staging from Second Youth Family Theatre is helped by the entire cast's excellent vocal abilities. The Bremen-bound menagerie, made up of Julie E. Wright (Donkey), M. Scott Tatum (Dog), Bridget Lee (Cat), and Brandon Tijerina (Rooster), lead the rest of the performers in well-directed, rousing choral numbers while hitting their solos with real skill and panache.
The acting in the production is a little less consistent. While Wright and Lee shine as the incurably optimistic Donkey and the sophisticated Cat, and Mike Ooi lights up the stage in the final scenes as the mayor of Bremen, other members of the cast are less than animated and markedly more forced in their animal and human roles. The script itself contains a few points of confusion, too; a scene in which Donkey sings to a church congregation threw me, as did the existence of Bremen as a land of milk and honey in the middle of Depression-ravaged America. But it's children's theatre; does everything have to make adult sense? Besides, these moments passed by quickly; the direction by J. Richard Smith is snappy, and the play bounds along at a clip brisk enough to hold the attention of children, yet smooth enough to tell the story thoroughly.
Although it harbors minor inconsistencies, Allen Robertson's The Bremen Town Musicians is a fine play for family viewing. It has enough talking, singing animals to satisfy any kid and music that is highly enjoyable in and of itself.
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