Some Bremen Musicians Who Capture Kids' Attention

Multi-species musicians, from left, Jason Wilson as Donkey, Kyle Schliefer as Rooster, Elizabeth Parsons as Cat, Amanda Thickpenny as Everyman and Jessie Dulaney as Dog. The characters from the Grimms' fairy tale journey to the German town of Bremen to shed their feelings of being outsiders.
Multi-species musicians, from left, Jason Wilson as Donkey, Kyle Schliefer as Rooster, Elizabeth Parsons as Cat, Amanda Thickpenny as Everyman and Jessie Dulaney as Dog. The characters from the Grimms' fairy tale journey to the German town of Bremen to shed their feelings of being outsiders. (By Ray Gniewek)
By Michael J. Toscano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

It's a Grimm fairy tale that's not quite so grim.

Classika Theatre's new musical version of the familiar children's story "The Bremen Musicians" is an upbeat experience throughout. No dark corners of the human heart are to be found here, save for some petty thievery, and the original a cappella score is mostly cheerful. It may strike some parents that an a capella musical would not hold their child's attention, but the kids who packed the house at a performance last weekend in Arlington County remained mostly engaged from first note to last.

That is noteworthy because there are none of the special effects, colorful sets, or bold lighting and sound that are usually present to keep tykes focused. And the 13 songs do not feature the simple, bubbly melodies one associates with children's theater. Composed by John Milosich, who regularly performs with Classika's partner, Synetic Theater, the score is a fairly sophisticated blend of polyphony and jazzy rhythms.

Frankly, I initially thought the kids would find it boring, and I was surprised that they remained interested. With the exception of the reaction to one song, there was little restlessness during the 50-minute performance.

"The Bremen Musicians" follows four animals, each one feeling like an outsider in some way, as they travel to the town of Bremen in the heart of Germany's fairy tale country. There they hope to become celebrated as singers. The story follows the familiar pattern of having the critters introduce themselves, meet one another and embark on a journey. Along the way, they learn about one another and themselves and try to unlock their potential.

In the show directed by Nicholas Allen, who also provided the dialogue and song lyrics, the energy levels of the five actors are oddly inconsistent. Elizabeth Parsons, for instance, gives us a highly animated portrayal of the nervous and fearful Cat, while Jason Wilson is close to lethargic as the good-natured Donkey. Jessie Dulaney is somewhere in the middle as Dog, but she struggles with some of the complexities of the score.

Kyle Schliefer gives us Rooster as an Elvis-wannabe, nicely showing how this critter uses bravado to hide his insecurities over having few friends. Amanda Thickpenny holds the ensemble together by bravura performances in a series of supporting roles. Rapidly shedding personas and changing accents, she provides much of the show's momentum with the various characters she introduces.

The songs are filled with substantial counterpoint. The lead singer (or singers) for each song handles the melody and the lyrics, and other cast members sing background notes that otherwise might be played by instruments. The effect might be described as medieval doo-wop.

Each animal performs songs in an individual style, with Dog getting a bluesy tempo that occasionally is too slow. Dog's first song is something of a lament that features a pretty melody and could even be considered catchy if played faster. Coming early in the show, it seems to drag and marks one of the few times the kids start to get bored and restless.

Director Allen is also a performer with Synetic, and although there is little of the uniquely stylized movement associated with that group to be seen here, a few Synetic touches are evident. The flowing pieces of fabric draping the intimate Classika stage are reminiscent of Synetic's work, as is the imaginative use of smallish panels. For example, when Donkey begins the journey by himself, panels painted to suggest forest trees are wheeled backward, simulating his movement forward. It's a nice touch parents can enjoy, even if the kids are not conscious of it.

Classika recommends the show for children 4 and older.

"The Bremen Musicians" continues through March 15 at Classika Theatre, 4041 Campbell Ave., in Arlington's Shirlington Village. Showtime Saturdays and Sundays is 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door, and are available by calling the box office at 703-824-6200 or visitinghttp://www.classika.org.


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