Fort Worth — Casa Mañana Children's Theatre’s world-premiere musical Frank-N-Friend just might be a monster hit, judging by the opening-night giggles and snorts from an audience packed with pre-teen kids and their parents. Co-creators Michael Visconti (music and lyrics) and Joe Sturgeon (script, additional lyrics) aim straight for the funny bone with this Frankenstein-meets-middle-school story of a genius kid who creates a super-friend to protect him from a tough guy. These two seem to remember exactly what it’s like to be a kid, and both the comedy and the messages of the show ring true.
Oliver (Jacob Hemsath) is the nerdy but self-confident “New Kid in School” at Mary Shelley Middle School, and just-met friends Kendra (Morgan Haney) and Michael (Isaiah Christopher-Lord Harris) are giving him a reality check. “Kids like you get eaten alive around here,” Michael warns the super-smart, rule-book-reading Oliver. Whatever you do, they tell him, don’t get on the bad side of Butch (Jarrett Self), the school’s biggest, baddest bully. Oliver runs into him (literally) right away, and knows he has a problem.
This is a kid’s-eye view of school (helicopter-parent alert: booger and fart jokes get some big laughs), and the teachers, played hilariously by Cara Statham Serber and Ryan Michael Friedman (he’s Oliver’s Frank-N-Friend for most of the show), aren’t asked for help. Instead, Oliver drags his BFFs to The Lab (his bedroom) to show them an invention he hasn’t tried out yet, his Morphing Machine.
Oliver is learning “How to Make a Frank-N-Friend” one ingredient at a time. And Kendra and Michael, both feisty, fast-talking characters who’ve tried to stand up to Butch, are ready for something or somebody who can change the game.
They toss everything they can think of into the machine: a cast-iron pan for strength, cookie dough for sweetness, an old sneaker for speed. A bit of dog hair? That’s for true-blue loyalty. The Morphing Machine needs a leg up to get it working—but by the end of Act One, out pops the Frank-n-Friend, a cheerful, lanky, lurching guy who’s learning the world one thing at a time. “Are hot dogs made of…” he asks, looking sad, then provides a definition from his bio-electrical brain. And they’re called Frank-furters? He’s delighted, and thinks he’ll have one…or 107, the total he eats to win the Field Day hot-dog eating contest.
Now that Frank’s on the team, Oliver and friends aren’t scared to confront Butch and his reluctant sidekicks — strong-minded sister Emmie (Laura Wetsel) and timid classmate Stevie (Gavin Guthrie) — for a game of “Dodgeball.” Before the playground battle, we learn more about Oliver, who misses his Dad (“Looking for a Lightning Bug”), and about Butch, who definitely is a bully…but might be more than a “push ‘em and punch kid.”
Will someone get hurt? “No blood, no foul,” says the school’s Coach Krempe, with a twinkle in her eye and a whistle between her teeth.” Dodgeball is her kind of game. In a strong cast, Serber’s Krempe (she was last seen in Casa’s Annie) just about steals the show as the gung-ho coach who enjoys giving her players (and a few startled kids in the audience!) an emotional elbow to the ribs. “You want a Band-Aid?” she growls to a little girl in the first rows. That, she strongly implies, is for babies.
Friedman’s Frank-N-Friend is the show’s other standout performance. His goofy, barely controlled body movements are fun to follow and his gaze magnetic, whether he’s looking down at smaller friends or out toward the audience. (Friedman’s recent roles have included Love in Stage West’s Everybody and Tin Man in The Firehouse Theatre’s Wizard of Oz.) Tammy Spencer’s all-about-the-details costume and Catherine Petty-Rogers’ hair and makeup add a lot: Frank is a walking visual of everything he’s made of, from his frying pan “hat” on down.
The tunes are fresh, the rhymes clever, and the cast of eight (five of them Equity actors) full of triple-threat talents who sell the songs, bring life to the characters, and dance while they do it. There’s even a sweet, sad song for…well, we won’t tell. Kudos to music director Vonda K. Bowling, sound designer Jonathan Parke, board mixer Ryan Morrow — and the singers — for working with the music tracks and keeping things crystal-clear in every number. It’s great to hear the words, and the show’s message, coming through in these heavy-beat, pop-style songs. (Parke’s quirky sound effects are fun too.)
Merrill West’s tight, hip-checking choreography was a hit with young audience members, some wiggling in the seats trying to copy the moves. Kimberly Powers’ set, a Seuss-ish panorama of the kids’ small world, is all about offbeat angles and bright colors. Oddly shaped windows glow golden in a scene at twilight, and Jemimah McPeek’s lighting seamlessly follows the action from bright classrooms to night-time bug hunts.
Director B.J. Cleveland (he survived middle school too) keeps the energy high and the comedy broad, but also pays attention to the little moments, happy and sad, that make Frank-N-Friend very human. The show’s messages about friendship and kindness — even when you hurt — are strong and delivered with enough humor and care to make them stick. True, these are kids in an imagined, out-there story. But being bullied, losing someone you love, wanting to be different from who you are, needing good friends…we’ve all been there, and know how it feels.
“To make a friend, be a friend,” says Frank-N-Friend. And who’s going to argue with him?