Children need to learn (and learn early) that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Of course, they should also be made to understand (equally early on) that there is occasionally free theatre. And that sometimes, said theatre can be just as good - if not better - than that you pay tons of money to see.
Luckily, kids don't have to spend their summer vacations waiting in line at the Delacorte for Mother Courage. They've got something special of their own at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where the TheatreworksUSA production of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie & Other Story Books just opened to claim its status as one of the best family musicals to grace New York in years.
Believe it or not, the word "family" really does apply here. While kids will undoubtedly be captivated by this collection of children's books come to life, as presented by a company of actors energetic, spontaneous, and versatile enough to be living cartoons, there's enough here to not only placate but satisfy their adult guardians for the full hour it takes the show to run its course.
Not that this breezy, bouncy bon-bon feels even half as long. Under the linguini-limbed direction and wind-up-toy choreography of Kevin Del Aguila (the brilliant bookwriter behind Off-Broadway's Altar Boyz), the lively musical direction of Jana Zielonka, and the whimsical designs of Rob Odorisio (sets), Martha Bromelmeier (costumes), and Tom Sturge (lights), If You Give a Mouse a Cookie books through eight well-known children's books that have been adapted by 14 up-and-coming and already-arrived talents.
The best known of these are probably Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the kids-at-heart who won Tony Awards for their tradition-skewing songs in Broadway's Avenue Q. Here, they tread through a variety of styles ranging from traditional and mock-gospel (in adapting David Small's Imogene's Antlers, about a girl who wakes one morning with a strange addition to her head) to mariachi (in "Borreguita and the Coyote," based on Verna Aardema's story about a little lamb who outsmarts a wily predator).
The other contributions are no less notable. Arthur Perlman and Jeffrey Lunden strike the right notes of whimsy in their take on Susan Meddaugh's Martha Speaks, about a dog inspired by alphabet soup to talk and talk and talk. Faye Greenberg and David Evans take on Owen, Kevin Henkes's story about a young boy reluctant to leave behind his cherished blanket when he starts school. Jordan Allen-Dutton, Erik Weiner, and James-Allen Ford bring a pulsating hip-hop sensibility to Aaron Shepard's Master Man, about a swelled head who learns the hard way he doesn't always have to be the best. Mindi Dickstein and Daniel Messé look at Jon Scieszka's Math Curse, about a young girl without a head for numbers, while Kirsten Childs (writer of The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin) explores Mary Hoffman's Amazing Grace, a tale of acceptance of self and others.
Each story, like the addictive title piece (an infectious hoedown based on Laura Numeroff's story about a generous boy who doesn't know not to feed the animals), is a superb showcase for six brilliantly caffeinated performers. Some you might know - Stephanie D'Abruzzo was nominated for a Tony for her work as Kate Monster in Avenue Q, and her I Love You Because castmates Farah Alvin and David A. Austin are here, too - some you might not (Nick Blaemire, Aurelia Williams, and Carla Woods were new to me).
But they all embody dogs, mice, pigs, and extremely wacky people with such life-affirming joy that they briefly become cherished friends. How can you not fall in love with Austin's British burglar or daffy doctor, D'Abruzzo's marvelously mouthy Martha, Blaemire's energetic Owen, Alvin's strong-headed Imogene, Woods's magnetic Master Man, or Williams's attractive array of beneficent authority figures? And if they disappear all too quickly, another clever creation or two or 10 comes along soon enough to take their places.
What a good lesson that is, too, to take away from the most delightful free theatre you'll see all year. Yes, messages about tolerance, growing up, humility, patience, and ingenuity are important. But their being presented in a musical so delightful it can encourage even jaded adults to look freshly at the form is a gift no parents should deny their children - or themselves.
If You Give A Mouse A Cookie & Other Story Books