In the tradition of introducing the littlest audience members to the wonder of live theater, Children’s Theater of Madison recently opened Diary of a Worm, a Spider, and a Fly, a bouncy musical adaptation of a series of charming books by Doreen Cronin. And to warm up the pint-sized attendees, the title characters come out into the audience prior to the show to say hello and get everyone excited for what’s to come.
The young people around me especially enjoyed talking to the adorably pessimistic Worm (Desmond Hawkins) about what he likes to eat — including his own homework! School teacher Mrs. McBee (a sunny Erica Halverson with a literal bee-hive hairdo) also made conversation praising books of all kinds, not just for bugs and other creatures, but for human kids too. It was a gentle and heartfelt way to get everyone comfortable with the adults in costume, and encourage both engagement and participation in the show.
Diary is actually a mash-up of three books—Worm, Spider, and Fly each have their own stories of adventure, mini-adversity, and school adventures, which they chronicle in their diaries. Part nature special and part PBS Kids series, they talk about the things bugs and creatures actually do (like molting), blend in some friendship drama (like the beauty of friends having different abilities), put the stories in a schoolroom setting that kids can easily identify with, and add music to stitch the vignettes together. It should work. It doesn’t, really.
The performers give it their all, and they have fun crawling, flying, and wiggling around the charming, primary color-infused set, complete with a slide, a treehouse and a secret tunnel (design by Steve Barnes). Amanda Rodriguez makes a spunky Fly-girl, telling us about how her eyes work and that she’d love to be a superhero. Jazmine Tamayo is an enchanting –and bilingual —Butterfly, floating across the stage in her gauzy, colorful dress. And Christian Siebert’s Spider maintains control of his eight legs most of the time. But the story has very little arc. We flit from moment to moment with little reason, or heightening tension. There’s also no single protagonist, which makes the story even harder to hold onto.
The one interesting vignette that really featured the bug gang working together to fight adversity was a riff on "Dragnet" -- a reference so old that many parents in the audience wouldn't be familiar with it.
The songs in the musical are memorable for their awkwardness. The only theme that’s repeated is a sad rap style that feels like it was written by adults who are trying much too hard to be cool. The canned music that relies heavily on synthesizers didn’t help the numbers at all. If anything, it accentuated the difference between this show and the company’s previous production, Tuck Everlasting, which had a glorious live orchestra for accompaniment.
Balancing the number and kinds of roles split between adults and children in CTM productions has been an issue in the past, and it is here too. But this time all the interesting characters are played by adults and a four person chorus of tween girls comes on occasionally to provide back-up vocals. Their parts are so small and so unnecessary, it’s surprising they’re in the cast at all. Even worse, in contrast to the colorful and inventive costumes for adults (design by Kristina Sneshkoff), the girls’ ensembles looked like an underfunded afterthought.
Even with a “wiggle break” mid-way through the show, the audience during the opening weekend had a very hard time sitting still—not because they were young, but because they were bored. Programming for 3-6 year olds is a challenge, but it’s also a crucial step in introducing them to the performing arts. So plays for the little ones shouldn’t be of lower quality than the rest of the season. They should be better.