Recent visitors to Off Broadway's New World Stages could be forgiven for concluding that they had stumbled upon a sort of specialty children's theater. The shows currently playing at this venue include such kiddie fare as The Gazillion Bubble Show, John Tartaglia's Imaginocean, and the new children's musical Freckleface Strawberry. (More and this last show later.)
The casual observer might be excused for thinking that Avenue Q was aimed at children as well, but anyone who's seen this show can certainly attest to the contrary. And, of course, the NWS complex also serves as landlord to the Naked Boys Singing, and I must confess that, as I was descending into the underground bunker that is the New World Stages, I had to wonder how many parents have had to answer embarrassing questions from precocious tots about that little piece of theatrical salaciousness.
But anyway, back to the show at hand, which is based on the popular children's book FreckleFace Strawberry by the fabulously talented actress Julianne Moore. The show recently opened to very positive reviews, but I must confess that I am not among the show's seemingly legion fans. I usually try to see as many musicals as possible, both on Broadway and off, but I frankly might have given Freckleface a miss if it hadn't been for the presence of two of my former students in the cast, the very lovely and talented Hayley Podschun and Kimiko Glenn. I'm happy to report that both Ms. Podschun and Ms. Glenn are in fine and entertaining form, but I really wish the show were more worthy of their considerable talents.
Freckeface Strawberry was written by Gary Kupper (music/lyrics/book) and Rose Caiola (book), neither of whom I have encountered before, nor did I recognize any of their credits in the show's Playbill. All I can think is that they must be friends of Ms. Moore (Ms. Caiola is also a co-producer), because they clearly didn't get the gig based on the quality of their music or words. The direction by Buddy Crutchfield and choreography by Gail Pennington Crutchfield, who I assume are married to each other, are certainly serviceable and energetic, although they rarely rise above the commonplace.
The main problem with the show is that it doesn't really have a sense of forward motion, nor any dramatic cohesiveness. For instance, early in the show, before we've even had a chance to discover who this Freckleface Strawberry is as a character, we get an "I want" song from the character Emily, called "I Like Danny." A more seasoned writing team would have used this spot to tell us more about the title character, as opposed to a secondary player who then proceeds to fade into the ensemble for the rest of the show. Toward the end of the show, we get a song called "Basketball," which is every bit as generic as its title, and represents pointless padding for the boys in the cast. This dramatic fragmentation might be somewhat forgivable if the songs themselves represented anything of lyrical or musical distinction, which alas they do not.
I suppose it might seem churlish to carp about dramatic integrity in a children's show. But shouldn't children's shows be held to the same artistic standards as adult shows? Perhaps even higher standards? Isn't it, instead, rather condescending to assume that kids' shows don't need to be cohesive or make structural sense? All I know is I wasn't the only one squirming in my seat at this particular 11 AM showing of Freckleface Strawberry. About 2/3 of the way through the 70-minute show, the kids started getting really restless. And when it comes to kids' shows, that's where the rubber hits the road: if the pint-size butts are fidgeting in the seats, then the show itself isn't working.