Dallas — We all want to be someone or something else at some point, and thankfully anyone with an imagination can do that. It’s what the resourceful Siamese kitten Skippyjon Jones does in Judy Schachner’s series of books that follow the spirited kittycat. When alone in his room—usually after being scolded by his Mama Junebug—his mind takes him on wacky adventures.
These exploits really go into overdrive when Skippyjon enters his bedroom closet, as if his own version of C.S. Lewis' wardrobe. That storage place for clothes, memories and dreams is such a catalyst for Skippyjon’s whimsies that his family discourages him from hanging out in there.
That spirit of fantastical escape is captured in a world premiere musical based on Schachner’s big-eared, bouncing kitten, his family and imaginary friends, now playing at Dallas Children’s Theater. Skippyjon Jones, by longtime DCT playwright Linda Daugherty and with music and lyrics by her recent collaborator Nick Martin, is a recipient of a 2014 TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund.
Thanks to energetic performances, smart direction and vibrant choreography by Nancy Schaeffer, colorful costumes by Lyle Hutchon and a fantastic production design (credited to the team of Amarante Lucer, Bill Peeler, Autum Casey, H. Bart McGeehon and Joshua Smith) that evokes the look of Schachner’s illustrations, Skippyjon Jones is destined to be picked up by other theaters with young audiences in mind. To get an idea of the book’s look, see the video above. Yes, Skippyjon has his own YouTube channel.
This musical mostly follows the adventures in Schachner’s first book, but weaves in some plotlines from other installments to make it worthy of two short acts and an intermission.
Skippyjon (a playful Zak Reynolds) begins hanging out with a bird and her babies high in a nest (really fun puppet design here), until Mama Junebug (the always superb Debbie Brown) sends him to his room. While his three sisters (Mary McElree, Morgan Mabry-Mason and Erika Larsen) hang on the sofa and watch their favorite game show, Skippyjon sees a Chihuahua in the mirror (played by Ivan Jasso), and that leads to an imagined journey to the Mexican desert. There he becomes the masked Skippito Friskito, and is joined by serape- and sombrero-clad Chihuahuas as he fights a big, bad bumblebee named Alfredo Buzzito. Again, terrific costume and puppet work.
Even with all that, the actors who steal the show are Karl Schaeffer as the host of the feline-themed and pun-filled game show called Quiz Kitties, and David Lugo as all three of the contestants—most memorably as a pompous cat named Scar. (Could it be that Scar?)
Daugherty uses passages straight from the book. My favorite, lyrically spoken by Brown as Mama Junebug after she first sends Skippyjon to his room:
You’ve got to do some serious thinking before you leave this room, Mr. Fuzzy Pants …
about just what it means to be a…
not a bird…
not a mouse
or a grouse…
not a moose
or a goose…
not a rat
or a bat…
You need to think about just what it means to be a Siamese cat.
Schachner’s language is filled with made-up or embellished words and rhyming silliness, but she illustrates her text, meaning that it’s not always the same font or point size. Onomatopoetic words like “pop!”, “clap-clap” and “crashito!” are emphasized in larger letters, and they get appropriate weight as spoken by the actors.
Nick Martin’s music is tuneful and his lyrics for such songs as “No Self-Respecting Cat” and “Something Small” are clever. One of the lines he writes for the cast to repeat is “bow chicka bow wow wow,” which is distractingly close to slang that adults use for, well…you know. Hey, the adults need something to laugh at that goes over the young'uns' heads.
I really wish, however, that the music was composed for a small combo that could play the music live onstage, rather than a synthesized score that’s piped in through the sound system. Granted, a canned score is most practical when/if the show travels; it will also allow smaller-budget theaters to produce it because of the affordability. But with a youth theater as prestigious as Dallas Children’s Theater, it would be wonderful for the kids in the audience to see that musicians are an equally important part of the musical experience.
They’re being exposed to the art of stagecraft, costuming, choreography and acting, so why not let them see that music—and the performance of it—is a vital component?
That complaint doesn’t diminish from the delightful musical that reminds us what it was like to have an active imagination as a kid.
If you, dear adult, still have one, then consider yourself lucky.