Children’s Theater of Madison’s current production for the littlest audience members, How I Became a Pirate, is rated “arrrrr” for a really good introduction to live theater. Based on the award-winning book of the same name, written by Melinda Long and illustrated by David Shannon, it tells the story of a pretty average little boy, Jeremy Jacob, who is taken aboard a pirate ship for a few days as the crew, led by Captain Braid Beard, tries to find the perfect place to bury their treasure.
The day starts off as a typical trip to the beach. Jeremy (a bright-eyed, dulcet voiced Jamie Iskandar) is making sandcastles while his two dads are taking care of his baby sister. (Big points to CTM for making that subtle but important change to the script!) When Jeremy spots a pirate ship headed straight for their piece of shore, he can’t believe his luck! His dads respond with the typical disengaged adult statement, “that’s nice, dear,” and head inside, reminding Jeremy that he needs to be home in time for soccer practice.
But when the band of colorfully dressed pirates comes ashore, they are incredibly impressed with Jeremy’s sandcastles and his obvious digging ability so they immediately recruit him to be part of their rowdy bunch. The rest of the show is devoted to the pirates teaching Jeremy their ways, and the little boy teaching the gang of scallywags a few things about his life — like how to play soccer and the importance of dental hygiene.
Dan Klarer leads the cast as Braid Beard and does a good job invoking every pirate trope, from his swagger and gravelly voice to this obsession with treasure. The crew make efforts to differentiate themselves and a few really stand out. As Swill, Denzel Tsopnang capitalizes on the script’s references to being absent-minded and navigationally challenged. As Pirate Pierre, the ship’s galley chief, Desmond Hawkins is amusing, waving a baguette in one hand while pursing his lips in an oh-so-French sneer. Sharktooth is the pirate who makes the biggest impression. Armando Harlow Ronconi is an almost intimidating grump, who reveals later that his eyepatch simply covers up an annoying case of pink eye. If he wasn’t sick he’d be in a better mood, as he explains in the song “I’m Really Just a Sensitive Guy.”
Each new conversation comes with a jaunty song — some with a Carribean/calypso sound, some riffs on classic pirate shanties, and one that even mimics the “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from Pirates of Penzance. All are bouncy and fun, performed nicely by the ensemble, with simple but well executed dance moves (direction and choreography by Tony Clements). The songs are also livened up by frequent onstage music-making, from a percussion fest, to a kazoo band, to the whole cast strumming along on brightly colored ukuleles during one number.
Similar to Sesame Street’s use of monsters, How I Became a Pirate takes a typically scary cast of characters and makes them friendly and harmless. These pirates mention their swords once or twice in song, but none brandishes so much as a toy wooden weapon. Instead of rum they carry barrels of Diet Coke onboard. And there’s no stealing included the story, just burying the gold.
Also similar to Grover, Elmo and the Sesame Street gang, the comedy directed at the under-six set is mixed with quite a few things that only adults will understand. Anytime you can use the word “poop deck” in front of the kindergarten crowd you’re going to get screams of laughter. But then parents will chuckle along softly when the pirates ask an unseen Alexa to steer the boat, and make references to the Beatles and the website Pirates Dot Arggh.
The most magical and clever part of the musical is actually the set, designed by Mike Lawler. A ramshackle lifeguard’s post turns into a pirate ship before the audience’s eyes, unfolding like a Transformer. The enormous blue sky projected on a scrim in the background morphs easily from good weather to storms and the subtly rounded, light wood platform that holds the action of the play easily does double duty as a sandy beach and the deck of a ship.
There’s a stretching break in the middle of the 60-minute show, but unfortunately that doesn’t keep it from feeling long. This is a common problem when a ten minute bedtime book is expanded for the stage; there’s just not enough story to keep everyone interested for an hour. That doesn’t make it a bad outing with little ones who haven’t been to the theater before, it just means the last 20 minutes are going to be noisy and wiggly.
Playing through March 2 in the Playhouse at Overture, this is a sweet, if watered down story that will hopefully encourage the littlest landlubbers to set off on more adventures in the theater in the future.