To keep from hearing the Sirens — the Greek mythological beings whose songs lured men to their deaths — Odysseus’s mariners famously stopped their ears with wax. Good thing the sailors never encountered the Sirens who seem to float in a pool of candy-colored tulle in the irresistible new children’s musical “Orphie and the Book of Heroes.” These fantastical ladies are really scary — they want to give the gutsy orphan Orphie a makeover.
As recounted with sly exuberance in this hilariously literate show — now in its world premiere run at the Kennedy Center Family Theater — Orphie (Lauren Du Pree) doesn’t exactly have time to sit around getting her eyebrows plucked. She has to extricate her guardian Homer from the underworld, where he’s being kept by that sinister song-and-dance man Hades. Nevertheless, in a Motown number, the Sirens (Evan Casey, Samuel Edgerly and Paul Scanlan, in colored wigs) try their hardest to win Orphie over to a beauty regimen. (“You gotta skip dessert / You gotta paint your toenails / And a little bit of eyeliner never hurt / Do Pilates.”)
The seduction of the Sirens isn’t the only peril Orphie faces down in this musical, which features a book and lyrics by Christopher Dimond, music by Michael Kooman and direction by Joe Calarco. A devotee of the adventures she has read in Homer’s “Book of Heroes,” Orphie is troubled that Greek mythology is short on tales of female derring-do. Still, when Homer is nabbed by Hades, she courageously turns her bathtub into a boat and sails off for Mount Olympus, hoping to get help from her idol, Heracles. Along the way, she survives bad weather sent by the gods and avoids being trampled by Atlas (an enormous puppet, voiced by Thomas Adrian Simpson).
Alas, Heracles (a drolly strutting Casey) turns out to be a narcissistic rock-star type who charges for his services. (“If a Titan / Needs a smitin’ / Baby, Heracles can!” he boasts in a disco-tinged song.) So Orphie sets off to rescue Homer herself, becoming the kind of female hero she had longed to read about. With this plot twist, “Orphie and the Book of Heroes” — recommended for ages 9 and up — adds a girl-power spin to a subtle message about the joys of reading.
But the most delectable aspect of this 70-minute show — at least for adults and children who know their classical legends — may be the frequent tongue-in-cheek, anachronism-peppered allusions to Greek myth and culture. Before leaving home, Orphie has a showdown with three mean, doltish schoolboys named Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles (Casey, Scanlan and Edgerly) who say things like “O-M-Zeus!” and assure her that girls can’t be heroes. Later, when Orphie plaintively reminds Hades (Simpson) that she’s an orphan, he quips, “There are worse things than not having parents. Ask Oedipus!”
Simpson’s comically gloating Hades is a delight and not just when, attired in red sequins for his cheerful number “Misery,” he does soft-shoe and “A Chorus Line”-style kicks. (Karma Camp is the show’s choreographer. Dan Covey’s color-rich lighting allows Tony Cisek’s set, with its movable rows of Doric columns, to evoke multiple locations.)
Also winning is Edgerly’s roller-skating Hermes, who is aggrieved to be considered merely the errand-boy of the Olympian deities (“It’s not like I’m their receptionist!” he grouches). Christopher Bloch makes a sweetly doddering Homer, and Du Pree is endearing as the brave, humble Orphie, whose enthusiasm for Greek mythology is downright infectious. If, about a decade from now, there’s a spike in undergraduate classics majors, Dimond, Kooman and their colleagues may be to blame.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Book and lyrics by Christopher Dimond; music by Michael Kooman. Directed by Joe Calarco; music direction, Jenny Cartney; costumes, Timm Burrow; puppetry design, Burrow and Tony Cisek; sound, Matt Rowe; properties, Pamela Weiner; orchestrator, Mike Pettry. With Gia Mora. About 70 minutes. Recommended for ages 9 and up. $20. Through Feb. 25 at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324.