We’re truly blessed to have such sharp talents right here in D.C., who can take a comic strip and whip it up into a classy, pleasant children’s musical seemingly effortlessly. While The Gift of Nothing, commissioned by and having its world premiere at The Kennedy Center, will probably not enter the canon of classic children’s holiday shows, it is certainly destined to delight many a young viewer in this and certainly other, future productions.
Patrick McDonnell co-adapts from his picture book of the same title, a spare, almost poetic slice of wisdom and sweetness showcasing characters from his familiar funny pages feature Mutts. To take its maybe two dozen brief pages and turn them into an hourlong musical requires a bit of expansion, and McDonnell, along with his collaborators – co-adaptors Erin Weaver and Aaron Posner (who also directs, with associate Erica Chong Shuch), composer and lyricist Andy Litton, and music director and arranger George Fulginiti-Shakar – manage to fill the time with a minimum of fluff.
We’re brought gently into the whimsical world of the cat, Mooch, his canine best friend, Earl, and their respective humans, on a “special day” when snow is on the ground and gifts are being given. Seeing an opportunity to do something nice for his pal, Mooch decides to follow the humans’ lead and give a gift to Earl – but since the pup has everything already (toys, food bowl, doggie bed), Mooch naturally concludes that the only gift he could give Earl is – nothing! And thus he begins to search for some “nothing,” wherever that can be found, as the humans begin to wonder where the cat got off to.
There is an unforced innocence to this world. Here, neighbors can squabble good-naturedly over whether cats or dogs are better, and the human girl Doozy (Sakile Lyles) can wander her comic strip-cutout neighborhood (Luciana Stecconi’s appealing design) in search of entertainment when her phone loses reception. This is all because everything is filtered through the guileless viewpoints of Mooch and Earl; adult troubles simply don’t cross their minds any more than they do a child’s, and so it’s not surprising that the kids in the audience come to care for these two anthropomorphized critters before play’s end, calling out from the seats for the two animal friends to find each other when they’ve become separated.
The production wisely courts the engagement of the children, and hearing their unpredictable responses is half the entertainment for the adults. Nickolas Vaughan, as Mooch, takes the lead in finding ways to include the audience from within his pink-nosed feline costume (designer, Laree Lentz), with plenty of help from Maggie Donnelly as Earl, Joseph Patrick O’Malley as Earl’s human Ozzie, and Rachel Zampelli and Michael John Casey as Mooch’s Millie and Frank. At one point, Vaughan even asks the rambunctious young audience members to be still, quiet, and close their eyes for several moments – and succeeds, with easily several dozen three-to-ten year olds in attendance. No mean feat. That moment exemplifies both the easy connection these performers make and the personality the creators bring to the project.
THE GIFT OF NOTHING
Closes December 28, 2014
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
1 hour with no intermission
for ages 4 and up
Fridays through Sundays, plus special Wednesday and Monday showings
This is not to say that the story is a screed or heavy in any way – just that it has genuine personality. We spend as much time enjoying the simple pleasures of watching Vaughan and Donnelly play cat-and-dog as we do being told the True Meaning of the Holidays.
The songs, save for the department-store one, are light, fun and mostly unmemorable; the other exceptions are Mooch’s purrfectly simple three-note “Little Pink Sock” and the lovely, affecting “Waiting at the Window.” The jokes, especially the frequent wordplay on “nothing,” are clever and friendly to all ages. If the show takes a little too long to get going and a little too long to end, it’s no terrible thing to spend a little more time in this cozy, wintry place. With a winning cast and spot-on design, The Gift of Nothing is itself a great gift for the parent looking to give their child a fresh alternative to the old chestnuts – or electronic screens – this season.
The Gift of Nothing . Based on the book by Patrick McDonnell with characters from McDonnell’s comic strip MUTTS . Adapted by Patrick McDonnell, Aaron Posner, and Erin Weaver . Music and lyrics by Andy Mitton . Directed by Aaron Posner . Featuring Michael John Casey as Frank, Maggie Donnelly as Earl, Sakile Lyles as Doozy, Joseph Patrick O’Malley as Ozzie, Nickolas Vaughan as Mooch, and Rachel Zampelli as Millie with Stephen Russell Murray and Nora Palka. Produced by The Kennedy Center, Performances for Young Audiences . Reviewed by Brett Ableman.
THE GIFT OF NOTHING
Closes Dec 28
William O’Sullivan . Washingtonian Nickolas Vaughan shines as the impulsive feline Mooch, his black-clad body slinky, agile, and unguardedly goofy
Benjamin Tomchik . BroadwayWorld Polished, well-acted, filled with catchy music and containing important life lessons
Gina Jun . DCMetroTheaterArts a fanciful, family-friendly musical