Theater Review: 'Barrio Grrrl!' at the Kennedy Center

'Barrio Grrrl!': Chris Wilson, Natascia Diaz, Ana Nogueira, Erika Rose and Vishal Vaidya.
'Barrio Grrrl!': Chris Wilson, Natascia Diaz, Ana Nogueira, Erika Rose and Vishal Vaidya. (Carol Pratt)
By Celia Wren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Let's hope there are 401(k) plans for imaginary friends. After all, their careers don't last forever, as Quiara Alegría Hudes reminds us in her gentle, witty children's musical "Barrio Grrrl!," now making its world premiere at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Family Theater. Scored by Bill Sherman, with book and lyrics by Hudes, "Barrio Grrrl!" paints a portrait of Ana, an inventive, plucky 9-year-old whose mother is a soldier in Iraq. To compensate for Mom's absence, Ana has bonded with a spectral pal named the Amazing Voice.

Alas, as the Amazing Voice observes ruefully in one of the show's tuneful, world-music-flavored songs, kids tend to outgrow even the most loyal fictitious chums -- a truth that the Certified Imaginary Friend syllabus ("Eight semesters on hide-and-go-seek,/Senior labs on how to disappear. . . .") somehow neglects to cover. As Ana (played by Ana Nogueira) matures, the Amazing Voice (Natascia Diaz) faces an inevitable pink slip.

The Voice's bittersweet ballad is one of the most fetching moments in "Barrio Grrrl!", which eschews conventional narrative thrills and chills in favor of exploring children's creative and emotional lives. We learn about Ana's alternate identity as a superhero (the eponymous Barrio Grrrl), and witness Walter Mitty-like daydreams in which, for instance, she accepts the Nobel Peace Prize while wearing a Diane von Furstenberg suit. We also get to hang out with her nonimaginary, cash-strapped peers as they try to drum up funds for a Mister Softee cone and otherwise while away a summer in the barrio.

Tomboyish and endearing in her ponytails and camouflage shorts, Nogueira is the unflagging dynamo of this plush production, which is directed by Peter Flynn. Other zesty performances come from Chris Wilson, as the entertainingly gloomy second-grader Oscar ("Hope is a nope"), Vishal Vaidya as his mischievous neighbor Sandip ("Getting punished gives me a sense of purpose") and Erika Rose as their buddy Odette. Diego Prieto brings an apt weariness to his depiction of Ana's overworked abuelo (grandfather), a character who, along with the Iraq references, gives the story a sobering dose of realism.

Diaz is a tad bland as the Amazing Voice, but then Hudes (who has twice been shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, who penned the book for the Tony-winning musical "In the Heights" and who wrote the play "26 Miles," which starts a run at Round House Theatre on Oct. 28) gets less momentum than she might from the imaginary friend motif. The show's allegiance really rests with those barrio rapscallions.

Whether portraying a real person or an invention, the cast gambols adroitly through Devanand Janki's hip-hop-meets-hopscotch choreography, with scenic designer Misha Kachman's row houses providing a picturesque yet down-to-earth backdrop. Deserving of special mention is Nancy Schertler's color-rich lighting, which helps distinguish between fantasy and naturalistic sequences. In a moment of amber intensity, Schertler also underscores the full tragedy of a dropped ice cream cone. Imaginary friends may not betray you, but gravity often does.

Wren is a freelance writer.

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