There is a lesson that seems aimed squarely at the Governor of Florida in this lively musical for young children, which features cheeky, wacky songs about spider-bitten butts, earth-destroying babies, dead clouds and a toothbrush who defends a dinosaur accused of murder.
Each of those songs represents a comic book put together by one of the twenty-two young frogs (all but six of them puppets) in “Cat Kid Comic Club The Musical,” an adaptation of the series of graphic novels by bestselling author and illustrator Dav Pilkey.
The frogs’ adoptive father, Flippy the bionic butterfly fish (Jamie LaVerdiere), cooked up the idea of a comic book club, along with Cat Kid, aka Lil Petey (Sonia Roman), as a way to channel their charges’ terrible tadpole energy. They have given the kids four days to finish their comic books.
But on Day Three, Flippy flips out over the violent and vulgar stories the frogs have come with so far. “From now on,” he decrees, “nobody can make comics that are not decent and wholesome with good moral values.”
So, all the frogs quit the club.
Flippy realizes he overreacted, a lesson driven home when on Day Four, Starla (L.R. Davidson), who had been resistant to the idea of doing a comic book, shows up with a lovely one (the song is entitled “Birds, Flowers, Trees.”)
“I was scared to write it,” Starla tells Flippy. “But when I saw that everybody’s comics were about toothbrushes, dead clouds, and people with spider bottoms…”
“You knew you could do better,” Flippy says.
“No. They inspired me.”
“All those stories about outsiders who were different really spoke to me. They helped me feel brave enough to do my own thing and be myself no matter what.”
The message about tolerance and personal expression feels even more pointed when I learned that Pilkey’s most popular children’s book series, Captain Underpants, were once the most banned books in America, That series produced a spin-off “Dog Man” series, which book writer Kevin Del Aguila and composer Brad Alexander adapted into “Dog Man: The Musical” four years ago to some acclaim. It makes sense then, that they are returning for more of Pilkey’s impudent and imaginative take on the world by dramatizing “Cat Kid Comic Club” (which is a spin-off series to “Dog Man”) with the same producer, TheaterWorksUSA, at the same theater, the Lucille Lortel.
That the “Cat Kid Comic Club” series is a spin-off of a spin-off helps explain some otherwise mystifying allusions in the musical to past events, especially a prologue that went completely over my head, about “twenty-two supa angry tadpoles [who] have psychokinetic brain powers and now they’re flying everywhere destroying the city and stuff” (The city is quickly saved when Cat Kid dumps the “antidote” into the tadpoles’ swamp.)
Such digressions feel less disruptive in a 70-minute show that’s so eclectic and episodic, almost like a series of Saturday morning cartoons — a feeling emphasized by the cartoon-like scheme by costume designer Jen Caprio and set designer Cameron Anderson, as well as the many rudimentary puppets. The show’s score is eclectic — eleven songs in a wide-ranging mix of rock, country music and hip hop. Even the lessons are multifold. Two hilariously bickering siblings Melvin and Naomi (Dan Rosales and Markia Nicole Smith), learn to appreciate one another – and also learn about sexism, when a carnival barker is attentive to Melvin and ignores Naomi.
Brian Owen portrays the sexist carnival barker – as well as Dennis the toothbrush that wants to become a lawyer and go back in time to defend dinosaurs, Curly the failure-prone frog, and Chubbs McSpiderbutt. All six cast members delighted the large contingent of toddlers at the Lortel, but somehow Owen’s rubber-faced, space-gobbling, anarchic clowning felt like its own lesson.
Cat Kid Comic Club The Musical
TheaterWorksUSA at Lucille Lortel Theater through August 27
Running time: 70 minutes
Tickets: $41-$77. Rush tickets on day of performance: $25
Adapted by Kevin Del Aguila and Brad Alexander from the Cat Kid Comic Club series by Dav Pilkey
Directed and choreographed by Marlo Hunter
Set Design by Cameron Anderson, Lighting Design by David Lander, Costume Design by Jen Caprio, Co-Sound Designers Scott Stauffer & Jesse Desrosiers, Puppet Design by AchesonWalsh Studios/ Fergus Walsh, Matt Acheson
Cast: L.R. Davidson, Jamie LaVerdiere, Brian Owen, Sonia Roman, Dan Rosales, Markia Nicole Smith
Photographs by Jeremy Daniel.
L.R. Davidson, Jamie LaVerdiere, (back) Brian Owen, Markia Nicole Smith, Dan Rosales and Sonia Roman