You would think that a picture book about a quirky cap-seller who stacks his wares on his head in a precarious pile — then loses them to a pack of mischievous monkeys — would be a natural fit for Adventure Theatre MTC, whose artistic director, Michael J. Bobbitt, has successfully adapted several children’s books into musicals.
But until a few years ago, Bobbitt had never heard of “Caps for Sale,” first published in 1940, with text and illustrations by Russian-born artist and writer Esphyr Slobodkina. It was Washington-based playwright Renee Calarco (“G-d’s Honest Truth”) who planted the seed in Bobbitt’s brain. Upon her suggestion, he read it, liked it and thought: “Caps for Sale, the Musical.”
He contacted Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer, who runs the Slobodkina Foundation and worked and lived with the artist during most of Slobodkina’s final, yet active, decade. (Slobodkina came to this country in 1928 and died in 2002 at age 93.) Sayer — whom Bobbitt calls “a living library of information about ‘Caps for Sale’ ” — had already written a sequel (set to come out Oct. 27) and agreed to collaborate. The plot of the sequel has been folded into the show, and Sayer and Bobbitt also added a character, Essie, based on Slobodkina.
Sayer shudders when she recalls another time the foundation allowed a “Caps for Sale” musical. “We were just horrified at the results,” she says. “So I was very cautious about what Michael’s intentions were.” Once they began working on the script, she was reassured.
The songs, by composer-lyricist William Yanesh, echo styles from a range of European folk traditions, but nothing too specific. (They sit, Yanesh jokes, “on the border between France and Russia.”)
“It is deliberately a little bit obscured,” he says, “because while the book itself seems to have Eastern European influences . . . it is definitely outside of geography and outside of time.”
Sayer was concerned early on about the score.
“I didn’t want it too Sondheim, because it is for young people,” she says, “but I think there’s enough Gilbert and Sullivan there. By the second listen, I found myself humming a couple of the songs.”
Bobbitt describes Yanesh’s score as popular classical musical theater in the tradition of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “She Loves Me”).
The vocabulary in the show includes words one might not expect in a children’s show — “surrealistic,” “entrepreneur,” “caprice” and the silly phrase “follicle filching.” But that’s part of Bobbitt’s philosophy.
“In context, kids can get a whole bunch of words they couldn’t read,” he says. “Their speaking vocabulary is wider than their reading vocabulary. We always try to stretch kids’ ears.”
Caps for Sale, the Musical Sept. 11-27 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, Md. 301-634-2270. www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org. $19.50. All ages. After the show closes at Adventure Theatre, it will go on a national tour, Oct. 5-Nov. 28, then land at the kids-focused New Victory Theater in New York for a showcase run Feb. 27-March 6.
Nine-year-old “B,” the little girl in “When She Had Wings,” has issues: She’s a bit overweight, her mom’s out of the picture and her loving dad doesn’t quite understand why she spends so much time in a backyard tree, trying to “fly.” B believes that she could really fly when she was little, and she wants to regain that power. Then “A,” an ancient, sprightly woman with wild hair and few words, turns up, and B thinks she may be the lost aviator Amelia Earhart, one of her idols.
The play at Imagination Stage has been a multiyear project for Suzan Zeder (“Wiley and the Hairy Man”), a well-known writer of theater for young audiences, and Imagination Stage associate artistic director Kathryn Chase Bryer, who is directing the production.
Zeder’s initial idea for the play came to her as she was sitting on a bench in Oregon, gazing at the Pacific Ocean. “Something about the sky and the limitlessness of the birds flying,” she says, caught her fancy.
“It started out with this little girl who has issues with weight and lots of issues that weigh her down as a person, who knew before she could walk she could fly . . . that character of this little girl who desperately wants to recover that part of herself that she believes was the authentic self, the flying self. . . . That led me to the preoccupation with Amelia.”
Early on, Zeder and Bryer took their work to the arts-based Lucy School in Middletown, Md., where kids in pre-K through fifth grade studied flight and ways to express it in movement and puppetry. They gave Zeder and Bryer feedback on everything.
“I had this incredible resource of looking at this subject, at this topic, through the eyes of the kids,” Zeder says.
But there won’t be any “Peter Pan” aerobatics in this show.
“We have always known that with this play, we are going to create beautiful images and that the point of the play is to give our audience the chance to use their imaginations and fill in the blanks,” Bryer says.
When She Had Wings Sept. 23-Nov. 1 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660. www.imaginationstage.org.
$12-$30. Ages 5 and older.
Oliver!, a revival by Adventure Theatre MTC of the classic Lionel Bart musical based on Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist,” ends its run Sunday at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 301-634-2270. www. adventuretheatre-mtc.org. $35- $45. Recommended by Adventure Theatre for all ages but has some fairly dark themes.
Peter Pan, under a tent with 360-degree projections, has been extended to Aug. 23 at the Threesixty Theatre at Tysons Corner Center, 8200 Watson St., McLean, Va. 800-745-3000. www.peterpan360.com. $25-$140. All ages.
Dear Evan Hansen, the buzzed-about new musical starring Ben Platt, with a book by Washington native Steven Levenson and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, continues through Aug. 23 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. www.arenastage.org. $40-$100. Ages 12 and older, but parental discretion is advised as themes include teen suicide.
Garfield: The Musical With Cattitude, continues through Aug. 23 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. 301-634-2270. www.adventure theatre-mtc.org. $19.50. All ages.
Dinosaur Desperados runs through Aug. 30 at the Puppet Co. in Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, followed by “The Velveteen Rabbit,” Sept. 18-Oct. 18. 301-634-5380. www. thepuppetco.org. $10. Ages 3 to 9 for both.
Alice in Wonderland, a new adaptation by Lloyd Rose, a former Washington Post theater critic, will, in the hands of the movement- inspired Synetic Theater, have a gothic, not-for-preteens tone. Unlike the troupe’s Shakespeare adaptations, “Alice” will have dialogue. Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Sept. 30-Nov. 8 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Crystal City. 866-811-4111. www.synetictheater. org. $20-$60. Age 13 and older.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.