I was a fan of children’s theatre starting as a little kid in a music/drama toddler class (seriously). The Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood scared me silly at age 4; I took part in many a play at school and in special drama programs (Camellot Academy in Kansas City) — and as an adult arts editor, I spent hours immersed in and writing/making awkward first attempts at video about Eugene’s Upstart Crow Studio‘s Annie (that experiment’s many posts are collected here).
The connection between youth arts education and arts advocacy & attendance in adulthood is pretty well documented, and I’m grateful that I grew up in a theatre-going family in a city with a lot of theatre, be it the Missouri Kansas City Rep‘s Christmas Carol or the Unicorn Theatre‘s variety of new plays or the Quality Hill Playhouse, where I saw and completely fell for Forbidden Broadway back in 1990.
And now to the play in question, which I saw as part of Fertile Ground‘s second weekend. (This review is OUTRAGEOUSLY late, and OCT Managing Director Ross McKeen is never going to talk to me again, I’m sure.)
Those in the Portland area have one weekend left to catch the Oregon Children’s Theatre‘s Diary of a Worm, a Spider, and a Fly. OCT is quite the professional theatre group, run by adults who take theatre for children seriously but don’t lose their senses of humor along the way.
Diary of a Worm is a book by the marvelous Doreen Cronin (who also wrote, aside from the subversively funny Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, Worm’s companion books Diary of a Spider and Diary of a Fly). The three books were combined into one musical with book and music by Joan Cushing, who has a ton of experience creating children’s theatre from children’s books.
Combining three books into one narrative gets a bit awkward in this version despite the gloriously colorful and mostly recycled set and the songs, which range from hip hop to ballad to energetic rockin’ fun. But the kids on the day I went didn’t care. They knew the books, and they understood that each character had a quest: Worm (Bryce Earhart or Blake Peebles; I saw Earhart), without legs, needs some kind of life purpose (his quest is the most nebulous); Fly (Lea Zawada, full of adventurous and confident energy) wants to be a superhero; Spider (Ethan Crystal), who’s older than the other two (or at least the actor certainly is), wants to shed his exoskeleton and be an adult.
You will not be shocked to hear that their quests find fulfillment. The three best buddies go to school, and the plot — really a series of set pieces — covers the action of the year. Their teacher, Mrs. McBee (Rebecca Frost Mayer, funny and physically just as flexible and dance-ready as the young actors) helps guide the students, including the explosively enjoyable Ant (Dylan Earhart, who could verge on hammy but pulls his stupendous bounding energy into an impressive performance) and the also high-octane Butterfly (Lauren Nicole Steele).
The songs remain at the hummable but not earworm level, and the actors keep it together even when little ones in the audience can’t quite respect the conventions of theatre. It is a tad long for the preschool set, about 65-70 minutes with no intermission, so you might want to read the books with young ones ahead of time to help them stay focused on the stage. Despite what adults might see as a few narrative sags, the show’s quite a bit of fun, and the costumes by Sarah Gahagan should rivet kids’ eyes as well. I think this high-quality, high-energy show could make some lifelong theatre fans out of first and second graders.
Two performances remain, both matinees this weekend at the Newmark Theatre in the Portland Center for the Performing Arts.
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