adapted for the stage by Kevin Kling
from the book “What Do People Do All Day” by Richard Scarry
music by Michael Koerner
lyrics by Kevin Kling and Michael Koerner
directed by Krissy Marty
produced by Imagination Stage
reviewed by Ted Ying
“So simple, yet so brilliant.” says Huckle the cat when the postal service is explained to him. But he might just as well be describing this wonderfully enchanting production at Imagination Stage. Busytown is an adaptation of the Richard Scarry classic children’s books set in the fictional Busytown. Although most of the vignettes come from the book “What Do People Do All Day”, there are many familiar characters from his other books.
The musical opens with the Busytown theme which serves as the show’s overture. The full company then comes out to sing the tune based on the original book title “What Do People Do All Day” as a great introduction to some critical characters. These include the protagonist, Huckle Cat (Matthew A. Anderson), Sergeant Murphy (Don Kenneth Mason), Stitches the Tailor (Emily Levey), Alfalfa the farmer (Michael John Casey), Mom Cat (Sara Brunow) and Blacksmith Fox (Tiernan Madorno). For the remainder of the show, the audience follows Huckle through a series of adventures that introduces him to various people and professions from the world of Richard Scarry. In an age appropriate manner for the younger audience, the cast shows how carpenters build a house, how a letter can move across the country to a relative, how a doctor’s office works and more.
This show is an amazing success in large part due to the talented ensemble that drives the show. Their energy, passion and talent kept the children focused on the stage for the duration. Of particular note, Anderson as Huckle the Cat was perfect for the role. His voice was a wonderful stand-out when needed to enchant the audience who fell in love with him from the big opening number. He struck the right note to make the children feel that he represented them wandering through Busytown learning about people and their jobs. The children also loved Don Kenneth Mason as Sergeant Murphy the dog. When he barked out his first “arf arf arf” chasing the banana thief around the theater, the children howled with laughter and helped point him “over here” whenever Mason lost the scent. Mason had a slight problem with slurred enunciation that made some of his lyrics slightly challenging to understand, but it did not weaken his charm or the audience’s interest. The three distaff members of the cast more than held their own, with some beautiful singing both as a group and as soloists. They combined for a wonderful Andrews sisters style number that was a fan favorite of the adults in the audience. Emily Levey brought to life three favorites, as the driver of the pickle car, Stitches the Tailor and Betsy Bear. The audience loved all of them and her versatile voice made the three seem quite distinct. Her timing was sharp and she moved well which helped keep the pacing in her numbers smooth. Tiernan Madorno played a number of smaller characters, but her physical acting and body language were top notch and truly carried a number of scenes. From her Carpenter pig to Grandma Bear, she helped craft a truly magical world for the children. Sara Brunow was in fine voice for her wonderful star turn as Nurse Nellie adding a nice comical touch to the scene and number. Michael John Casey played two popular Scarry characters (amongs others), Alfalfa the farmer and Jason the mason. But he truly dazzled the children with his eleven o’clock number “The Train Song” when he elicited full audience participation to bring down the house. Whether it was a technical issue or a projection issue, Casey’s volume was slightly lower than the music and other voices which sometimes muffled his solos and made him harder to pick out.
The technical staff was up to the level of the ensemble. The audience was immediately amazed walking into the theater by Tom Donoghue’s delightful Disney-eque stage. The cartoon perspective buildings immediately set the tone for the show to come. The clever rail track for vehicles used throughout the show added a great “Mr. Rogers Land of Make Believe” touch that certainly brought many an adult back to their childhood while still delighting the children. Costume designer Yvette M. Ryan outdid herself with the well done cartoon style costumes. All the costumes excelled at bringing Richard Scarry’s characters to life down to the little details such as Captain Salty’s “fish” coat buttons, and the hook on the end of his tail.
The special effects in the show were perfect for the audience, however, we did experience a few technical glitches that will hopefully be sorted out.
Music Director Keith Tittermary was the sole accompaniment on piano, and was more than up to the task. The music was appropriate and entertaining and musically the show was sharp. He even filled in a few times driving remote controlled vehicles on stage or filling in with some prop management. Director Krissie Marty outdid herself with this wonderful production. From the blocking to the timing to the technical details, this show truly shined. Marty added an excellent balance of age appropriate humor and audience participation to the production to keep the audience fixated. Marty even made the show educational for the younger audience by adding simple labels that the kids could practice reading. Following a scene where firefighters had to come and save Huckle the cat, one of the firefighters reminded the children to talk to their parents about a fire escape plan.
One of the challenges of a family show is ensuring that the younger audience members attention is kept on the stage. On opening day in the afternoon, our audience was over 90% full and well over three quarters of that were children under the age of 10. This sensational cast so enraptured the audience that we experienced very little of the commotion commonly caused by young audience members. Imagination Stage wisely has a “quiet room” which is a glass both which has the sound miked in from the stage so that patrons having problems sitting still for the duration have a place to go and still enjoy the show. For the first time since I have been attending shows at Imagination Stage no one used the booth (although one or two near us probably should have).
Every parent should make the effort to take their family to see this production for a sampling of good, clean educational fun. Huckle the cat had it right, Busytown is “so simple, yet so brilliant.”
Running Time 1:30 including one 15-minute intermission
When: Through November 2. Saturdays & Sundays at 12:30 & 3:30 PM and Saturdays 7:00 PM. Additionally Tue, September 30 at 11:00 AM, Thursday, October 9, Saturday October 11 & Saturday October 25 at 10:30 AM.
Where: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave, Bethesda, MD
More Information: 301-280-1660 or visit the website.