TADA! Brings a Pair of Books by Ezra Jack Keats to Vibrant Life on Stage
From Fancy Nancy to the Berenstain Bears to Matilda, putting popular children's books on stage is nothing new. And yet TADA! Youth Theater's musicalization of a pair of Ezra Jack Keats stories is pretty daring because most theater companies stay far away from the award-winning author/illustrator. Yes, he's famous and many of his books are beloved, so adapting his work might seem like a no-brainer. But here's the thing: While Keats' tales are quite evocative on the page, with moody illustrations and sparse text that capture the inner lives of his characters, there isn't a lot of action. How the heck do you make that theatrical?
Pretty well, thanks to thoughtful writing, inventive staging and young performers who are so exuberant you can't help but be charmed. It was also smart that they chose two lesser known books: Apt. 3 and Maggie and the Pirate. (Could you imagine The Snowy Day on stage? Neither can I, although apparently someone tried it).
Set in a big apartment building, Apt. 3 is the simple tale of two young brothers who hear saxophone music (in the book it's harmonica) coming from one of their neighbors. While searching for the source, they go on an aural journey, hearing diverse voices and sounds behind every door. Since there's not a lot of plot, director/choreographer Joanna Greer cleverly incorporates dance interludes that are meant to communicate what the boys are feeling: fear, adventure and excitement all rolled into one. It's a bit Dance Moms at times but it gives the ensemble a chance to show off their moves and enhances the slight story. The lighting design, full of dark blues, greens and black, is reminiscent of the book's rich illustrations.
Maggie and the Pirate also hews closely to the source material. One of Keats' final books (currently out of print though you can hear it narrated online), it's about a quirky girl who lives in a school bus and dotes on her pet cricket. When the insect is stolen by a pirate, Maggie and her friends go on a quest to retrieve him, which ends tragically (at least for the cricket) but results in new relationships. This mini-musical is particularly winning and with good reason: It's written by Winnie Holzman who adapted Wicked for Broadway, and her wit and affinity for children are evident here.
Beyond being based on Keats' books, these shows are thematically linked: They're about the power of friendship and the insatiable curiosity that inspires kids to explore the world around them every day. Young audience members will certainly relate—especially since these children are played by their peers not grown-ups in little kid drag.