An occasional look at family-friendly theater around Washington. (Shows are appropriate for age 4 and older unless noted.)
Girl power and equality inform three shows for young audiences opening over the next few weeks — two classic fairy tales plus a comic take on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
Ella Enchanted, a new musical, goes back to the popular young-adult novel by Gail Carson Levine for inspiration, ignoring the 2004 movie version with Anne Hathaway. The show is a co-commission between Adventure Theatre MTC in Maryland and First Stage Milwaukee.
During a rehearsal break two weeks ago at Adventure’s Rockville studios, playwright Karen Zacarias took issue with the film.
“It’s fun,” she says, “but it doesn’t seem to capture what the real themes of the book are, which is about, ‘How do you find your voice and how do you live with a challenge you were born with?’ . . . What a lot of girls and women in the world are born with is challenges of different expectations and different rules.”
Levine’s book and the new musical take place in a medieval, fairy-tale Europe, but they riff on “Cinderella” with modern eyes. Young Ella chafes under a spell that forces her to obey every command anyone barks at her. Her weak father, conniving stepmother and mean stepsisters all try to control her, until Ella finds a way to assert herself. In the process, she acquires a best friend and eventual romantic partner in Prince Char.
Director Mary Hall Surface says she told the cast on the first day of rehearsal, “Every woman is born with the curse of obedience . . . culturally, pretty much around the world, that’s part of what goes with the gender.” But although the curse may “disempower” Ella, Surface says, it empowers her, too.
“She has to figure out what she’s going to do,” she says. “How is she going to live . . . what’s she going to do to keep powering forward, all the while trying to change it?”
As the cast rehearsed with Surface, Zacarias and composer Deborah Wicks La Puma kept incorporating changes and adding pages. Wicks La Puma took to the piano as actress Malinda Kathleen Reese as Ella sang, “Words are like magic, comic or tragic / I want to know what they say.” The “It’s Like Magic” duet between Ella and Prince Char (Javier Del Pilar) cements their friendship.
Wicks La Puma composed 12 songs for “Ella Enchanted” in “lyrical” musical-theater style.
“What I love is that it makes you like Cinderella and not feel bad for her,” she says of the show. “It makes you understand her and see her as a spirited young woman that you can really get behind as a heroine, as opposed to [wondering], ‘Why is she being a pushover?’ ”
“Ella Enchanted” Feb. 3-March 19 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, Md. 301-634-2270. adventure theatre-mtc.org. $19.50.
Imagination Stage was so pleased with its hip-hop trilogy — “Zomo the Rabbit: A Hip-Hop Creation Myth,” 2009; “P. Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical,” 2012; and “Cinderella: The Remix,” 2014 — that it has commissioned the same team again.
Playwright Psalmayene 24 (a.k.a. Gregory Morrison) and composer Nick “tha 1da” Hernandez will soon unveil The Freshest Snow Whyte, the first of a five-play series about science, technology, engineering, art and math. “ ‘The Freshest Snow Whyte’ is my exploration of technology through the lens of hip-hop,” Morrison says.
The heroine of the title, a brilliant graffiti artist played by Katy Carkuff, lives in the year 3000. Instead of spray cans, she uses a graffiti device that she programs and then “sprays” onto walls (with the help of designer Tewodross Melchishua’s projections).
She raps to the audience:
Said my name is Snow Whyte
But not the Disney version
Cuz this remix
Is just a bit more urban
And these raps are tight
Just like a turban
My talent reveals the light
Like an open curtain
Replacing the evil stepmother is a jealous uncle named Kanye East (Calvin McCullough). A longtime graffiti star himself, he goes a little crazy when he hears that Snow Whyte is now considered the best graffiti artist in the land. His servant, 3 Pac (Frank Britton), and magic mirror, Mira (Jonathan Feuer), can’t reassure him. So he spirits his niece to a backwater planet where they still use spray cans and her work won’t be seen. Of course Snow Whyte triumphs.
“Equality is at the core of the story,” writer-director Morrison says. “Right now, we’re living in a culture that is obsessed with winning and is hypercompetitive. You turn on the TV, you can’t escape these reality competition shows. . . . I wanted to really drive home the fact that intrinsically and inherently we’re all creative, and we’re all equally creative, but just in different ways.”
Morrison and composer Hernandez have a well-honed collaborative recipe.
“A lot of times, I’ll actually compose something simple, maybe just a simple drumbeat,” Hernandez says, “and he’ll write to it and get ideas and talk back and forth until we build upon it more . . . then I’ll just go on my own and add a whole bunch of layers to it — piano, trumpet, stuff of that nature.”
Hernandez sits in on all rehearsals, revising and recomposing. He says his “Snow Whyte” score nods to many traditions. “There are notes of bossa nova in this, hip-hop, classical. I like to mix it all up, because I feel like it’s an education for children.”
“The Freshest Snow Whyte” Feb. 11-March 18 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660. imagination stage.org. $10-$30. Recommended for age 5 and older.
Keegan Theatre has always done plays for adults, often showcasing Irish writers and themes. Now it’s launching a youth program whose three-part title, Play-Rah-Ka, also has Gaelic roots: (a) revelry, (b) boisterous merrymaking and (c) a party you don’t want to miss. Besides classes and camps, Keegan will stage professional shows for young audiences.
The first show, Hamlette, by Allison Williams, spoofs Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in less than an hour, with only five actors, most in multiple roles. As the title announces, the conflicted offspring of the murdered King Hamlet is a princess, not a prince. She wishes everyone would treat her as a girl, but her mother the Queen insists that Hamlette (Alexis Amarante) dress and be addressed as a boy. The frustrated princess parrots back her mother’s reasons:
Hamlette: Due to the overbearing patriarchal system, their husbands are endowed with any property they leave, forcing women into a lifetime of financial dependency, petty household concerns, and an early death from excessive childbearing.
Queen: And what do little boys do?
Hamlette: Inherit lands, money and titles granted to them solely because of an accident of genetics.
Queen: And that’s why sometimes Mother History needs a little help. Now tighten your codpiece and stand up straight!
Yet amid the modern language, playwright Williams retains good chunks of Shakespeare’s words. A former circus acrobat who also writes nonfiction and travel pieces and has just finished a novel, Williams has penned several Shakespeare spoofs for young audiences with such titles as “Drop Dead, Juliet!” and “Postcards From Shakespeare.”
By phone from her home in Dubai, Williams explained: “What I love about writing spoofs of Shakespeare is that I get to highlight these core pieces of language and these interesting moments in the play, while also pointing out stuff that helps a modern audience understand the play.”
Hamlette, for example, expresses confusion when she learns from her dead father’s ghost that her uncle has killed the king by pouring poison in his ear.
Hamlette: Wait a minute — he poured poison in your ear?
Ghost: The Eustachian tubes connect to the throat. Didn’t you learn anything at Wittenberg?
“When you first in high school read ‘Hamlet’ and [you see], ‘While I was sleeping in the garden he poured poison in the porches of my ears,’ it’s a great line, but you don’t really know what it means,” Williams says. “I like being able to highlight what it means, but in a way that’s also entertaining.”
“Hamlette” on Saturday mornings Jan. 28, Feb. 4 and Feb. 11 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. (Weekday performances are reserved for school groups.) 202-265-3767. keegantheatre.com. $15. Recommended for age 10 and older.
Shakespeare for the Young’s Midsummer Magic retells A Midsummer Night’s Dream using colorful puppets and scenery. At 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays Jan. 28, Feb. 25, March 25 and April 8 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. anacostiaplayhouse.com. Free. Recommended for ages 2 to 8.
A banished courtier, Rosalind, finds true love in the magical Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, with new music by Heather Christian and dances by Alexandra Beller, in association with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Through March 5 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. folger.edu/theatre. $35-$75. Recommended for age 8 and older.
Peter and the Starcatcher, the story of how Peter Pan first encountered Captain Hook and became The Boy Who Never Grew Up, is the next big show for Constellation Theatre Company, with a script by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, with music by Wayne Barker and directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Feb. 9-March 12 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. 202-204-7741. con stellationtheatre.org. $20-$45. Recommended for age 10 and older.