A musical written by Maurice Sendak, with a score by Carole King?! Why isn’t it better known?
That question would seem to make “Really Rosie,” which is on stage at New York City Center through Sunday, a good choice for Encores Off-Center, whose aim is to allow audiences to give old musicals another look.
“Really Rosie” began life in 1975 as a half-hour animated special on television, but an expanded stage version ran Off-Broadway five years later. So the show qualifies for Encores Off-Center. But that doesn’t make it a great choice.
“Really Rosie” is strictly for kids, and, while sitting through its 70 minutes, I have never felt less “young at heart” in my entire life.
But that’s not the main problem. It’s that Sendak was beloved as a children’s book illustrator, who was best known for the hauntingly beautiful drawings in “Where The Wild Things Are” – and there’s nothing to look at in this concert-version of “Really Rosie” except kids, wearing pink feather boas and big professional smiles, showing off their impressive skills at dancing and singing like a juvenile America’s Got Talent.
Sendak cobbled together “Really Rosie” from several of his books, most notably “Nutshell Library,” a collection of four related stories.
One of the stories from the collection is Pierre, and he gets his own song in “Really Rosie”:
There once was a boy named Pierre
Who only would say “I don’t care”
Pierre keeps on saying “I don’t care” even to a lion who asks him whether he would mind being eaten. So the lion eats Pierre, his parents bring the lion to town, and the doctor shakes Pierre out of the lion’s digestive tract. The trauma apparently did some good, because Pierre’s alienation has been cured and he just wants to go home.
“If you would care to climb on me, I’ll take you there,” the lion says.
“Yes indeed I care!” — and the lion takes Pierre home on his back.
What makes this Maurice Sendak story so charming on the page are the illustrations. Remember this?
Here’s what it looked like in the musical:
Lost on stage is Sendak’s complex tone, dark and full of dread, defiantly subversive, but at the same time beautiful and somehow gentle.
Instead, we get cuteness and ….razzle dazzle.
It’s accomplished razzle dazzle, helped along by King’s snappy melodies and Ayodele Casel’s choreography, sung and danced by a cast of first-rate diminutive performers many of whom are already Broadway veterans — of School of Rock, On Your Feet, Fun Home.
It doesn’t help that the various stories are tied together in a loose plot that involves Rosie (Taylor Caldwell) returning to the old neighborhood from stardom in Hollywood, and enlisting the other children from the neighborhood –Alligator, Chicken Soup (Rosie’s little brother), Johnny — to put together a Hollywood movie.
We know that Rosie and the other characters are just playing at being stars. The neighborhood stoop where they play is on Avenue P, which resembles Sesame Street. Indeed, several of King’s songs even count numbers or list the alphabet. Unlike Sesame Street, Avenue P actually exists in Brooklyn, running through Bensonhurst and Midwood, close to where Sendak grew up. But if the characters live in Brooklyn, there’s barely a moment in “Really Rosie” when you’re unaware that the performers portraying them work on Broadway.
New York City Center
Book and Lyrics by Maurice Sendak
Music by Carole King
Choreography by Ayodele Casel
Music Supervisor Chris Fenwick
Music Directors Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Carmel Dean
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Cast: Swayam Bhatia, Kenneth Cabral, Taylor Caldwell, Ayodele Casel, Jaiya Chetram, Eduardo Hernandez, Nanyellin Liriano, Chris Lopes, Zell Steele Morrow, Charlie Pollock, Ruth Righi, Anthony Rosenthal, and Nicole Wildy