Dallas Children's Theater stagings come with a delicious bonus. Not only is the production quality consistently high, but you get to watch the young audience members as they respond to the actors with unfettered honesty.
The current vehicle for this double treat is Diary of a Worm, a Spider and a Fly. Many parents will recognize that title as a combination of three books by Doreen Cronin. Joan Cushing did the combining, and she wrote the songs that run a frisky gambit from rock to rap to old-fashioned soft shoe. The title trio are bug kids, and their journal entries propel the action. So the number called "Dear Diary" is reprised (with plot-advancing changes) half a dozen times.
Spider and Fly are justly proud of their various and numerous abilities. But Worm has self esteem issues; he doesn't seem to have any special gifts. Clinton Greenspan plays this character with endearing vulnerability, but never stoops to smarmy pathos. Both he and director Bob Hess seem to realize that this is, after all, a musical comedy. Still, you get a tangible sense of yearning when Worm dares to dream of "Big Things."
Fly, meanwhile, dreams of being a superhero. (Yes, she argues, girls are eligible for that ambition.) Lindsay Gee is a kinetic treat in the role. Her "Fly Girl" is one of the best solo numbers in the show.
If you saw Adam Garst as the loathsome cyber prankster in dark play or stories for boys at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival earlier this year, you may have longed to see this talented young actor in a more sympathetic role. Long no more. Garst is likeable, and only a tad snobbish, as Spider. He brags about his limber "Legs," joined by Gee and the dance ensemble. And when it's time to shed that spidery skin, the molting ritual becomes (what else) a strip tease.
Choreographer Jeremy Dumont has enormous fun with these numbers, and with the dynamite "Boogie Woogie Gitterbug Ball."
Alexandra Valle captures perfectly the allure and the comical conceit of Butterfly. Akron Watson is the macho Ant, whose swagger deserts him hilariously when he is confronted by (Eeek!) a vacuum cleaner.
B.J. Cleveland shines as a platoon of insect types, among them Gee's frumpy Aunt Rita and a debonair Parisian worm. Amber Nicole Guest is appropriately bossy as the kids' teacher, a bee.
A two-level set permits actors to cavort high (Spider's web, Fly's lair) and low (Worm's hole, Mrs. McBee's classroom). Elsewhere, trap door panels pop open to reveal vignettes à la television's Laugh-In.
Costume designer Lyle Huchton opts for cute and quaint rather than realistically buggy. But the actors all have wardrobe items identifying their species.
The recent death of author Maurice Sendak brings fresh appreciation for children's stories in which young characters behave like real kids. The bug kids in this story are refreshingly human, down to the somewhat surprising moment when Worm does what pre-teen boys do worldwide: He makes a fart joke.