We love taking our kids to live theater but we're not fans of the ticket prices. That's why I look forward to Theatreworks USA's FREE annual summer kids' shows, which the nonprofit troupe has been presenting in NYC for the past 24 years.
This year's production is a page-to-stage musicalization of Judith Schachner's Skippyjon Jones, a series of whimsical picture books about a Siamese cat who goes on fantastical imaginary adventures. For young fans of the feline's exploits, the show is like catnip but even if your kids aren't familiar with Skippyjon Jones, they'll be charmed by his limitless energy and creativity.
The plot of Skippyjon Jones follows Schachner's original 2003 book, in which the title cat (the exuberant Austen Nash Boone) drives his mother crazy by pretending to be a bird, a shark, a bat—anything other than a feline. Fed up, she sends him to his room to write an essay about what it's like to be a cat but instead he retreats to his closet where he transforms into Skippito Friskito, a Zorro-like, Spanglish-speaking Chihuahua who vows to vanquish any bandito who crosses his path. During his travels through the Mexican countryside, he meets Los Chimichangos, a quartet of Chihuahuas who live in fear of a giant bee who steals their beans, and they ask Skippyjon for his help. The simple tale features familiar lessons about facing your fears and learning to be proud of who you are, but it's also a celebration of the power of imagination.
The thing that makes Skippyjon Jones and all of Theatreworks USA's productions stand out is that they're not your average low-rent kids' shows. The company uses professional performers and writers who don't condescend to their young audiences. The witty songs in Skippyjon Jones are particularly wonderful. Sesame Street composer Eli Bolin wrote the tunes, and the lyrics and book are by the multitalented Kevin Del Aguila, who has worked on many past Theatreworks USA shows and is currently costarring in Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway. As a longtime Chihuahua owner, "The Los Chimichangos Song" made me laugh out loud, with hilarious observations about their oversize heads and ears, incessant shaking and obvious pride.
I should mention that while the books are quite popular, Skippyjon Jones has been criticized by some as reinforcing negative Hispanic stereotypes for a new generation. While I understand their concerns, personally I think Beverly Hills Chihuahua was way more offensive. Ultimately, Skippyjon Jones is super cute for children ages 4 to 8, and with FREE tickets and air-conditioning, it's a good bet during the dog days of summer.
If you're thinking, sounds great! But it's free so what's the catch? There's only one: Tickets are first-come, first-served, and are distributed beginning one hour prior to the first performance of the day. Weekend shows are busy, but I've heard that weekday performances are often sold out with camp groups. So your best bet is to arrive early and prepare for potential disappointment. Also, no strollers are allowed in the theater so leave them at home.
Skippyjon Jones is playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through Friday, August 17. Visit the website for schedule. Tickets are FREE!