'Araboolies': Just Down the Street & Around the Bend
Thursday, July 5, 2007
If only all civics lessons were as sprightly as the Araboolies. The heroes of the frequently charming new children's musical "The Araboolies of Liberty Street" do handstands and climb up fire escapes, dressed in carnival colors. They never use a door when a window will serve, and they own a kangaroo. When the family members move into a conformist neighborhood and paint a gray house pink and yellow, they become quirky, cartwheeling demonstrations of the value of tolerance.
Sam Swope, author of the beloved 1989 picture book "The Araboolies of Liberty Street," has teamed with composer Kim D. Sherman to generate this world premiere, running at Imagination Stage through Aug. 12. Janet Stanford directs the production, which abounds in visual pizazz, thanks to the crayon-bright creations of James Kronzer, Melanie A. Clark and Michael S. Kay -- designers, respectively, of sets, costumes and props.
Perhaps the most notable collaborator on the project, however, is Robert Dion, an acrobatic choreographer who heads a theater in Quebec, and who has traveled south to set the Araboolies clambering and flipping like Cirque du Soleil refugees filtered through a funhouse mirror.
The motley-dressed, non-English-speaking Araboolie clan sends a jolt of adrenaline coursing through Liberty Street, a vicinity of staid townhouses tyrannically ruled by the fun-loathing General and Mrs. Pinch (Howard Stregack and Gia Mora). Every day, General Pinch drills the local children (Caroline Ashbaugh O'Neill, Miriam Liora Ganz and Timothy Dale Lewis) in calisthenics, shouting at them through a camouflage-pattern bullhorn. His wife, who wears cat's-eye glasses and a yellow dress that smacks of the 1950s, ensures that everyone abides by a huge rulebook, which prohibits laughter, candy, dolls, balls and other pleasures.
The musical takes a little longer than seems necessary to establish the dour atmosphere of this regime: The scenes and songs detailing the boredom of the Liberty Street kids, for instance, might stand a shade of trimming. But Sherman's score -- with its initial rigid, marching string sounds -- expressively echoes the Pinches' autocratic worldview. Later, when the Araboolies enter, the music veers into suitably bizarre, Spike Jones-like textures, with quacking horns and frenetic percussion. Swope's lyrics can be flat on occasion, but in their better moments they're energetically whimsical, as when Mrs. Pinch, in the song "This Means War!" fumes to the Araboolies, "You're loopy, you're loony. / You're flakes and you're flukes. / You're off-the-wall bonkers. / You're wackos and kooks!"
Mora brings a well-judged cartoonishness to such moments, as Stregack does to General Pinch's military excesses. O'Neill, Ganz and Lewis are pleasant as the oppressed young'uns. Several of these actors double delightfully as Araboolies, frolicking in and around a pink bathtub and other items of furniture that the eccentric family installs in the street.
But the most captivating performer in the production is Felicia Curry, who plays the first Araboolie to reach the neighborhood. With her almost unearthly foot-dragging, bent-kneed gait and the half-flabbergasted, half-delighted expressions that peek out from beneath her pink turban, she's an enchanting herald of real freedom for Liberty Street.
The Araboolies of Liberty Street, book and lyrics by Sam Swope; music by Kim D. Sherman; based on the book by Swope. Directed by Janet Stanford; music director, George Fulginiti-Shakar; dance choreographer, Veronika Farkas; lighting design, Dan Covey; sound designer/orchestrator, Fitz Patton. With Brian Lee Huynh and Shannon Listol. About 90 minutes. Through Aug. 12 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit http:/