Lively 'Five Little Monkeys'
By Jane Horwitz
Thursday, May 3, 2012
A picture-book backdrop and a brightly colored jungle gym are the only fixed elements in "Five Little Monkeys," the new show running - and jumping - through June 3 at Adventure Theatre MTC in Glen Echo Park. (Adventure Theatre has merged with the Musical Theater Center in Rockville, hence the added initials.)
The high-octane energy burning at such close range in Adventure's small space might wear on some adults. Not so for the roomful of tykes, ages roughly 2 to 6 at a recent performance.
"Five Little Monkeys" is based on the picture-book series by Eileen Christelow about the misadventures of five mischievous monkeys and their mom. The show uses adult actors in velvety monkey ears and various kinds of fuzzy tights and yarn wigs (clever human/animal hybrid costumes by Katie Touart). Valerie Leonard brings her classical theater chops to the role of Mama, dignified in her ears, aprons and long tail.
Expanding of necessity on the books' spare, rhyming prose, the stage adaptation by Ernie Nolan turns Mama into a gracious hostess. She invites the audience into her home for a snack and a visit but realizes she needs to run to the store for espresso. She asks us to watch her brood while she's out. She thinks they're in bed. Fat chance.
Instantly, the little dickenses get busy. As Mama has introduced them to us, they are, Monkey 1 (Jacob Yeh), the oldest; Monkey 2 (Katie Culligan), the "diva"; Monkey 3 (Joey Ibanez), the prankster; Monkey 4 (Aviva Pressman), the bookworm; and Monkey 5 (Ben Lurye), the baby. Under Karin Abromaitis's direction, the five actors maintain distinct personalities while performing their monkeyshines.
The show divides into four chapters, each launched while Mama is on an errand. In the opening episode, the offspring decide it's her birthday and bake her a cake as a surprise. Props designer Andrea "Dre" Moore uses ingenious bits of stuff here - a length of white towel as the dough that falls all over the place; colorful plastic (or rubber?) eggs - all leading to a comically deflated cake.
When Mama takes her brood on a picnic by the river, she runs home for napkins and the little monkeys encounter a crocodile (Yeh doubling as the croc, crawling around in a bright-green costume with a toothy jaw), so they skitter up a tree. Mama returns, gets rid of the croc, and her kids reappear. When she takes them to the store to buy new clothes, they all wander off.
"I'm starting to panic," says Mama. "No need to get manic," rhymes the clerk (Lurye). Eventually her brood is reassembled.
The actors playing the little monkeys take on other roles at various times, so Abromaitis and her designers have come up with a visual and budget-conscious bit of theatricality - standing posters with drawings of the various little monkeys on them to hold a place while the actor playing said Monkey plays someone else.
The final adventure begins with a charming getting-ready-for-bed pantomime as the monkeys brush their teeth and wash their ears. A moon glows in the sky, in Rob Berry's set, and stars light up amid the leaves of the big tree standing between the two painted house fronts perched behind the jungle gym. But the five little monkeys don't go to sleep. They start jumping on the bed, falling off and hitting their heads. Every time Mama calls a doctor, the prescription is the same: "No more monkeys jumping on the bed!"
This good-humored, rough-and-tumble show, with plenty of antics on the monkey bars and lots of monkey-style "hoo-hoo-hoo" vocalizations, is a fine way to spend an hour with little ones, and an hour is just enough. Each chapter is a cautionary tale, but nothing in the show, except that colorful croc, is even slightly scary.