Zach Theatre's Tortoise and Hare

This delightful, inspiring musical teaches us there's more to the story than the amazing race

The cast of Tortoise and Hare (Photo by Kirk Tuck)

Being savvy to the old saw that "slow and steady wins the race," you no doubt know the tortoise and the hare, but the question is, which hare? The one who actually engages in the amazing race with the shell-backed reptile or the one who trains said reptile for that race in exchange for the tortoise teaching her to read?

If the latter hare doesn't ring a bell, then know that she's uncommonly curious among her kind, who are generally more interested in living fast than chasing knowledge, and courageous in that she dares to cross the contentious line between the two species to better herself. And her assistance could save the tortoises' ancestral lands from being overrun by the hares, who are desperate for new territory since they reproduce like, well, you know. This race's outcome isn't about bragging rights; winning may be the only way that Kama – not just any tortoise but leader of the tortoises – can preserve her culture, a way of life built around taking one's time, being in harmony with the environment, and learning. Tortoises sing that the song of life goes on and on, but losing may mean it ends.

In this telling of the old story, there's so much more going on than a long-eared braggart getting his comeuppance from a modest plodder. Cultures clash, raising questions about competition vs. cooperation, tradition vs. progress, majority rule, gender roles, natural selection, conservation, education, whether surface appearances matter, respect for others, and sacrifice for a greater good. Characters gamble their futures on bold actions: Kama proposes the race because it's the only chance to postpone the hares' invasion, and the hare Harper turns tail, as it were, on her tribe because aiding Kama is her one shot at improving herself. The risks are great, but Tortoise and Hare takes pains to show its audience how rich the rewards are. The slow life of the tortoises, recognizing the worth in the natural world and community and books, is so enriching and joyful that we want it to survive, and we can see how knowledge fills an empty space in the spirited Harper, who yearns to be more than a pretty face. Ultimately, winning has less to do with persistence than with living a fulfilling life.

Such an idea is natural in a work by Allen Robertson and Damon Brown, the "Best of Austin" award-winning duo that's been creating musicals for young audiences for years now (with Robertson, who's been writing them since the Nineties, having as many to his credit as Aesop has fables). Here, as in their takes on Robin Hood (Rob1n), "The Elves and the Shoemaker" (A Shoe Story), and "Stone Soup" (Stone Soup), the team treats a classic tale as a template for exploring contemporary issues that can pit one community against another and finding a resolution that speaks to the value of cooperation and togetherness. Even as the race between Kama and Jackson, president of the hares, looms larger, Tortoise and Hare pulls us to the friendship growing between Kama and Harper. "Our differences are fewer than our many similarities," they sing in "Stretch," a number in which they learn they want to "see if all the things that make us different are the things that make us better together than we are alone."

The message is delivered with exuberance and charm in Zach Theatre's staging. Director Nat Miller capitalizes on the energy in Robertson's genre-spanning score – bouncy pop anthems, tasty funk, and musical-theatre hip-hop rapped at light speed – to propel his cast along like they're in a race. But the brisk pace is never at the expense of character. The story is grounded in the humility and conscientiousness of Leslie Ann Leal's Kama, who we can see shoulders a burden heavier than the backpack-shell she wears; in the pluck and hunger of Megan Hudson's Harper, who shows us how much she wants to break free of the image she's been stuck with; in the cockiness of Austin Hyde's Jackson, who wears his confidence as slickly as his suits. And in the enthusiasm and commitment of the ensemble members, whether they're playing tortoises or hares. With delightfully imaginative costumes by Jaimee Garner and choreography by Sara Burke, these are two fully bonded communities whose competition is delightful to watch and whose union is inspiring. "It's not what you're running from. It's not what you're running to," goes the finale. "It's who you're running with that's all that matters." Who are you running with?

Tortoise and Hare

Zach Theatre’s Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside, 512/476-0541
Through Jan. 27
Running time: 1 hr.

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Zach Theatre, Allen Robertson, Damon Brown, Nat Miller, Sara Burke, Jaimee Garner, Leslie Ann Leal, Megan Hudson, Austin Hyde

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