The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain Directed by Bruce Merrill

Vital Children's Theatre, 432 W. 42nd St. Equity showcase (closes Mar. 25) 592-4508 (call for schedule)

Review by Doug DeVita

(Book and lyrics by Kristin Walter; music by Michael Walter.)

One of Vital Children's Theatre's strongest assets is their (correct) assumption that children are much smarter and more attuned to the world around them than adults generally give them credit for. That belief fueled their latest effort, a delightful new musical adaptation of Mark Twain's classic short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

Set in colorful Angel's Camp, the heart of the California Gold Country, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" pits the farthest jumping frog in the county against a mysterious stranger. Jim Smiley, a gambler who'd bet on just about anything, challenges the entire town of Angel's Camp to find a frog who could beat his own Dan'l Webster. The wager? His niece's hand in marriage to either the new schoolmaster or to no one at all.

Kristin Walter's book and lyrics capture the tone and flavor of the original Twain story with a marvelous balance of childlike innocence and adult humor that makes it perfect family entertainment. Likewise, Michael Walter's score is a foot-tappin', rhythm-clappin' jamboree of hummable tunes. Jessica Guthrie's energetic choreography, Martin Miller's ingeniously simple set and lighting design, and the colorful western costumes (uncredited) added another level of professionalism to the afternoon, and director Bruce Merrill tied all of the elements together into a show that is so witty, so sophisticated, and so much fun that with only minor modifications (and a little more filling out) it could be a major new full-length musical.

But as strong as these contributions were, it was the charming and ebullient cast that shot the production into the stratosphere. Tracy Gaillard, Jessica Guthrie, James Hunt, Carrie Libling, Eric A. Martin, Ryan Paulson, Bryan Stendahl, and Emily Tuckman all gave sassily sharp characterizations: performing with unrestrained joy, their energy and high spirits swept everyone along with them on a wonderfully delirious adventure that grew more intimately involving as the play progressed. By the end of the hour-long show, it was like leaving friends you'd like to spend more time with, and hoped to see again.

Once again, Vital Children's Theatre has proven to be one of the best introductions to live theatre any child (and their parents) could wish for. By never talking down to their primary audience, and by trusting its natural intelligence, Vital provides the perfect venue for that ever-elusive commodity: family entertainment that entertains everyone in the family.

Box Score:

Writing: 2

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Sets: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2