Dallas — The trick to good children’s theater is to make it tolerable not only for your younger audience, but bearable for their parents as well. Dallas Children’s Theater, in its 35th season, is masterful in producing works that walk this tricky line—so it’s a shame that DCT’s current production, Diary of a Worm, a Spider, & a Fly, coming home after a national touring production, falls short.
A compilation of three beloved children’s stories by celebrated children’s author Doreen Cronin, the musical follows its three titular characters, as well as some other buggy friends, through a school year in Ms. McBee (Cosette Montemayor)’s Grade 1 class, with songs ranging from rock to hip-hop to big band. Spider (Ethan Rodriguez-Mullins) and Fly (Kristin Kuns) are both looking forward to the school year, as they write in their diaries, but Worm (Isaiah Harris) writes about feeling a little outclassed by his friends and their flashier attributes—Spider can spin webs and sail on the wind, Fly can…well, fly, Ant (Parker Fitzgerald) can lift huge weights, etc. How can a lowly earthworm measure up? Spider and Fly have their own issues, of course; Spider is ready to molt his exoskeleton and grow up, but nothing seems to be happening. And Fly wants to be a superhero, but Spider seems to think being a girl and a fly is disqualifying. It’s a busy year for Worm, Spider, Fly, and all their friends as they learn more about what makes them all special and unique.
The cast, under director/choreographer B.J. Cleveland, is game, but can’t overcome the fundamental dullness of the script—there’s just not a lot of there there. The action is slight, and awkwardly interrupted with “fun” facts about insects, while the songs are forgettable at best, cringeworthy at worst, in the case of some of the hip-hop inspired numbers (while allowances can be made for how slowly pop culture filters down through children’s theater, a cast throwing up gang signs and describing the action as “fresh” is not a great look in 2019). Harris’ Worm performs with appropriately slinky physicality, and makes the most of his comedic moments, most of which are, to the delight of many younger audience members, butt- or flatulence-based. Kuns’ Fly has some of the more successful musical moments in her journey towards superherodom, while Cosette Montemayor’s Ms. McBee is appropriately sympathetic or stern, as needed. Spider’s number while molting his exoskeleton may be the most successful, with its comedic take on a striptease. But overall the thinness of the story is hard to get past, and laughs were thin on the ground at the production attended for this review.
The set (from scenic artist Brian Longworth) makes great use of the space, from Worm’s underground bedroom to Fly and Spider’s more airy dwellings, while the costuming (from designer Lyle Huchton) adeptly emphasizes the flashier elements of each insect or arachnid; of particular note are Butterfly (Marla Acevedo)’s wings and purple sequin embellishments, Ms. McBee’s yellow and black skirt ensemble, and Worm’s earth-toned harem pants ensemble.
Chalk this one up to a rare misstep from a venerable producer of excellent theater for young audiences. We’re looking forward to next season’s offerings.