If you put together a garage band with your two best buddies, you would expect your own dad to remember the group’s name, right? The trouble-prone sixth-grader Nate Wright certainly expects as much, a fact made clear in an amusing sequence halfway through “Big Nate,” the latest world-premiere production from Adventure Theatre MTC.
Based on the popular comic strip and book series by Lincoln Peirce, the amiable family musical by Jason Loewith and Christopher Youstra chronicles Nate’s escapades as he seeks to lead his rock group, Enslave the Mollusk, to victory in P.S. 38’s competitive Battle of the Bands. Given all the pressure he’s under —he has recently racked up 24 detentions — Nate (Sam Ludwig) can be forgiven for throwing a tantrum when his father (Tim Rogan) mangles the Enslave the Mollusk moniker. The sixth-grader rolls his eyes and his head and stamps his foot; when those actions don’t do justice to his feelings, his body goes all rubbery, and he executes an exasperated, petulant, they-didn’t-do-this-to-Jim-Morrison dance.
Ludwig’s manic-scallywag mannerisms lend extra verve to “Big Nate,” a cheerful, methodical piece that is directed by Michael Baron and recommended for audiences age 5 and up. While it lacks the quirky brilliance of other Adventure Theatre coinings — such as the recent reggae musical “Three Little Birds,” which is scheduled to run Off-Broadway in the 2013-14 season — Loewith and Youstra’s affable yarn drew vigorous laughter and applause from an audience of young’uns at a recent matinee.
The show gains pizzazz from designer Misha Kachman’s set, which is dominated by crayon-colored classroom trappings, including maps, posters, knapsacks on stools and a whiteboard that sometimes relays cartoon-balloon-style text. (“Yak yak yak” is what teachers say to each other in the teachers’ lounge, according to Nate.) Thanks to a turntable, the school environment sometimes gives way to the cluttered garage where Nate and his pals Francis (Joshua Dick) and Teddy (David Little) rehearse their Enslave the Mollusk repertoire. These songs — including the rollicking “Rock Star” and “Love Is a Four-Letter Word”— constitute “Big Nate’s” musical highlights. (A few of the other numbers, by contrast, sound a tad plunky and tinny.)
In their quest for the musical championship, the boys are vying with Rainbows and Ponies, the tambourine-and-triangle-wielding pop group put together by Nate’s nemesis, the bossy, priggish Gina (Angela Miller). Things look particularly dire after Gina recruits Nate’s dream girl, Jenny (Shayna Blass), sometimes seen — as if through Nate’s eyes — roller-skating serenely across the stage, like an angel on wheels. Ever the rebel, Nate tries to renounce his crush in the droll song “Even Year-Old Cheez Doodles Are Better Than Love.”
Flipping her sleek ponytail, Miller is a divertingly villainous goody-goody; Dick is particularly amusing as the trivia-spouting Francis; and Ayanna Hardy lets rip with her waddling caricature of teacher Mrs. Godfrey. Most of the actors juggle roles, and sometimes they appear as a chorus of teachers, holding two-dimensional masks that seem to borrow facial styles from Peirce’s comic strips.
With such details, the musical pays loving homage to the Peirce canon. For the many fans of that canon, the homage will strike just the right rock-star-worthy note.
Celia Wren is a freelance writer.
book by Jason Loewith; lyrics by Christopher Youstra and Loewith; music by Youstra; based on the comic strip and books by Lincoln Peirce. Directed by Michael Baron; music direction and orchestrations, Youstra; choreography, Kate Arnold Wernick; assistant set designer, Sean Urbantke; costume design, Chelsey Schuller; properties design, Andrea “Dre” Moore; lighting design, Jason Arnold; sound, Kenny Neal; projections, JJ Kaczynski. One hour. Recommended for age 5 and up. Through June 2 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. 301-634-2270 or www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org.