Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Dinosaur Musical at Arden Theatre Company
The Dinosaur Musical, now playing at the Arden Theatre Company, is the latest work from brothers Willie and Bob Reale, best known as the authors of the musical A Year With Frog and Toad, a rather simplistic entertainment that nevertheless made it to Broadway and went on to become the Arden's biggest hit ever. Frog and Toad had lots of charm - mostly from the Reale's clever songs - but was hampered by being forced to use the patchwork structure and underdeveloped characters of Arnold Lobel's children's books. The Dinosaur Musical has no such handicaps, and the Reales have created an original story that allows them to break free and have fun with the conventions of musical theater.
The Dinosaur Musical opens in the court of Marcus, King of the Tyrannosaurus Rexes. Marcus brings an end to the carnivorous violence between dinosaur species by brokering "The Treaty of Meat," which essentially turns all of the meat-eating behemoths into vegetarians. After Marcus dies, his meek and naïve son Quincy is forced to assume the throne. Quincy is manipulated by his scheming aides into breaking the treaty, which leads to an all-out war between the T-Rexes and the other dinosaurs.
It's a simple enough tale, and has a lot to teach young people about the need to work together. But that's just the groundwork for a story that usually goes for laughs but never leaves out real human (well, dinosaur) emotion. At the heart of the story is Quincy, who would rather sit and draw flowers than be king. Joshua Lamon, a Barrymore winner last year for his role as the "Snail with the Mail" in Frog and Toad, gives another sensational performance here. His Quincy is sad and lonely one moment, hilariously petulant the next, but always sympathetic and charming. His soaring tenor in his farewell song to his father, "The One Thing I'm Good At," will break your heart.
Rebelling against the reluctant king is a ragtag band of dinosaurs led by the brave warrior Reginald and nightclub singer Carlotta. Carlotta's twelve-year-old daughter Mindy tries to lift her mother's spirits by singing of the life they long for: "There's a better somewhere ... Where the singers get top billing/And the dressing rooms are clean." (Yes, even theatrical in-jokes make it into this show - just another example of lyricist Willie Reale's wit.)
Reginald has a twelve-year-old daughter too, and the girls soon bond in the yearning counterpoint number "I Want to be a Twin." They also scheme to fix up their parents by making them take a walk in the moonlight (because "there is something about moonlight that makes people want to kiss each other!").
The other members of the resistance are somewhat cartoonish ethnic stereotypes, but each is played with such affection that it's unlikely anyone will be offended. There's Swifty Levine, the Jewish comic who runs Swifty's Volcano Café ("With Swifty as host/He's the top triceratops on this or any coast"); Genevieve, the moody, beret-wearing French waitress (Carlotta: "I'd like to read your poems someday." Genevieve: "They're dark and angry." Carlotta: "Well, maybe some night, then"); and Armando, the Spanish pilot who seeks "to honor my family name - which is really long." And then there's Mamma Lucredzia, who gets around the treaty of meat by inventing cooking - so called because, she says, "everyone told me it was a kooky idea!" She leads the company in "Spaghetti," a ridiculously catchy parody of Italian street songs that works in the names of several dozen types of pasta ("There's rigatoni, cannelloni, fagioloni, farfalloni ...").
"Spaghetti" is just one example of the stylistic variety in Bob Reale's music. He also serves up swing ("Can't Concentrate"), gospel ("The Source of Power"), a waltz ("The Predator's Waltz"), and some Jolson-style pizzazz ("I Don't Think You Really Want to Eat Me"). It's not a perfect score - the opening number "Incredible" is a bit sluggish, and the love ballad "There is a Moon" is rather ordinary - but it's always interesting. This is a show that always seems to be enjoying itself; it's even fun to look at, thanks to Richard St. Clair's costumes and Nick Embree's sets.
Director Whit MacLaughlin has done a terrific job with his ensemble, with each member of the cast getting a chance to shine. Of particular note are Christopher Sapienza, Peter Schmitz and Donna Migliaccio, hamming it up delightfully as Swifty, Armando and Mamma Lucredzia; and Jillian Louis, who underplays nicely as the French waitress, then steps out and struts as a very different dinosaur who is determined not to be a victim. (Schmitz and Migliaccio also score as King Quincy's sinister assistants, who add a nice touch of subversive political humor to the proceedings.)
Kelly McCreary and Leah Elizabeth Goldstein are winning as the two pre-teen schemers. As their parents, Ben Dibble and Robyne Parrish are smooth but have little romantic chemistry.
That's just as well, since some of the younger theatergoers might find all that love stuff yucky. But my twelve-year-old niece, Bridget, came with me and found the whole show hilarious. She couldn't think of one thing about the show she disliked, and thought that kids of all ages would love it. Certainly the kids sitting around us seemed to love it - even the five-year-old who heard one lyric, then asked her father what "Summa cum laude" meant. Who says you can't learn something new at the theater?
The Dinosaur Musical runs through January 22, 2006 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia. Tickets range from $14 to $30 (Kids 12 and under $14-$16; Teens $18-$22; Adults $26-$30). Tickets may be purchased by calling the Arden box office at 215.922.1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or in person at the box office.
The Dinosaur Musical
Ben Dibble Reginald Van Cleef