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Red Riding Hood With a Cajun Beat

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page C14

Fat Tuesday has come and gone, but the rollicking rhythms of a New Orleans jamboree are still pulsing at Imagination Stage, now presenting the new children's musical "Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood." With the exuberance of a Mardi Gras float wheeling through the Big Easy, writer and composer Joan Cushing has turned a 2001 picture book (text by Mike Artell, illustrations by Jim Harris) into a clever stage production whose tunes explode with Louisiana zest.

The show's heroine is a gutsy Cajun duckling sent to deliver some homemade gumbo and cornbread to her sick grandmother, or Grandmere, as those Francophones say. Donning a tomato-red cape, Petite Rouge (Keittra Colombel) sets off through the swamp with her sidekick TeJean (Isaiah Johnson), a capering cat given to wearing a beret and playing jazz harmonica.

Keittra Colombel (pointing) is the title character in the Louisiana-flavored children's musical "Petite Rouge," with Isaiah Johnson as the cat TeJean. (Stan Barouh)

Faster than you can say "dirty rice," the innocent duo find themselves the prey of an evil gator named Claude (Bobby Smith) who wields a gourmand's wooden spoon and would like nothing better than to simmer Petite Rouge in a piquant marinade.

Fleeing, our heroes make an unintended detour through New Orleans, where they cop some Mardi Gras beads and mix with jubilant carnival dancers dressed in sequins. But fear not: this is children's theater, so virtue escapes from Bourbon Street unscathed, and an ingenious gambit involving boudin (sausage) and volcanic-strength hot sauce puts an end to Claude's nefarious schemes.

The creator of several other plays for young'uns, including the widely produced "Miss Nelson Is Missing!," Cushing is known in the adult world for her political satire revue "Mrs. Foggybottom & Friends." So it's not surprising that "Petite Rouge" contains a few slyly sophisticated touches.

One scene, set on a riverboat called the Creole Queen, briefly lampoons the kind of mechanically enthusiastic monologue one tends to hear from tour guides. At another point, Petite Rouge encounters a group of helpful trappers -- who, in the zoomorphic world of the play, are also a turtle, a frog and a crayfish, as evidenced by the puppetlike headpieces the performers wear. The trappers (Cyana Cook, LC Harden Jr. and Tracy McMullan) explain to Ms. Rouge that they turn nasty gators into "accessories" like boots and belts. You're never too youthful, apparently, to learn the fashion applications of exotic leather.

Such writerly wit notwithstanding, it's the show's score that will keep older audiences from being bored on the bayou. Cushing has cooked up a jambalaya of geographically related styles, from accordion-flavored ballads to zydeco, with doses of bouncy Cajun fiddle and dashes of jazz and the blues. The numbers even include a "Funeral Dirge" composed for a choir.

Nicely served by the theater's acoustics, the music has an infectious melodiousness that would be agreeable to listen to even in the absence of a libretto.

Director and choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt matches the tunes with some vivacious dance sequences -- big swooping gestures and high kicks and shoulder rolls that make the performers seem to be part cantering swamp-creature, part participant in some rustic shindig. Smith is delightfully smarmy as the devious, food-fixated Claude, and the other actors enter their characters with gusto, dressed in the folksy, multicolored garb created by costume designer Reggie Ray. Completing this make-believe southern world, scenic designer Robert Klingelhoefer supplies a verdant swamp backdrop with dangling Spanish moss and algae-patterned flooring that has just a whiff of Monet's Giverny about it.

Hard-core cynics may carp that "Petite Rouge" exploits as many New Orleans and Louisiana cliches as you'd find in a tacky gift shop in the Vieux Carre.

But most viewers will probably feel relieved that an over-familiar fairy tale has been so thoroughly spiced up. To the latter group: bon voyage on the journey to the Cajun fantasyland. And remember, don't talk to strangers -- at least, not the ones with the really big teeth.

Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood by Joan Cushing, from the book by Mike Artell, illustrations by Jim Harris. Directed and choreographed by Michael J. Bobbitt; musical direction, Deborah Wicks La Puma; lighting, Alexander Cooper. Approximately 90 minutes. At Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.

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