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What does it take to turn a kitten into a swashbuckling hero? Just ask the team behind Skippyjon Jones, the latest family musical from TheaterWorksUSA. A free show presented at the Lucille Lortel through August 17, it's another example of how TheaterWorks transforms children's books into song and dance spectaculars.
But the transformation isn't simple. The company spends years perfecting a production, aiming to satisfy parents, children, children's book authors, and a large team of theatre artists.
The first step is selecting the right book. Beyond its annual free summer program and other productions here in New York, TheaterWorks, which launched in 1961, depends on tour bookings from schools, community groups, and other organizations across the U.S. and Canada. It's much easier to schedule a tour with a well-known story.
However, dealing with successful fiction makes it more difficult to obtain the rights, and while many of the original books, including Skippyjon, need to be fleshed out for the stage, authors and publishers often place restrictions on how their titles can be changed.
Kevin Del Aguila, the book writer and lyricist of Skippyjon Jones, found that he and author Judy Schachner were typically on the same page about how to expand her story, which follows a kitty who imagines he's a sword-fighting Chihuahua. The only hitch came with the ending. Del Aguila recalls saying to Schachner, "'It seems like it should end with Skippyjon being okay with who he really is.' Judy said 'Oh no no no no no… His imagination is the greatest thing that he has.'"
She went on to explain that she would never have survived her own childhood if she hadn't been able to imagine other worlds and possibilities for herself. As Barbara Pasternack, TheaterWorks' artistic director points out, "Even if Kevin had wanted to make a different choice, he had to respect her wishes."
Eventually, everyone came to an agreement, and that was just one of hundreds of choices that had to be made. Once Pasternack secures the rights to a title, development can take another two years, including initial drafts, readings, and workshops in front of kids and industry pros.
For Skippyjon, Pasternack enlisted a creative team whose work she trusts. Choreographer Devanand Janki and director Peter Flynn have collaborated on dozens of productions at TheaterWorks and elsewhere, and they have a shorthand that allows for a constant flow of choreography, music, and action. "We finish each other's sentences," Janki says.
This is particularly helpful on Skippyjon, where movement and blocking are used to create effects that, on a bigger budget, might be achieved with elaborate sets or technical elements. In one scene, for instance, Janki and Flynn have the actors run in place toward the audience, creating the illusion of a high-energy race.
Composer Eli Bolan, the relative newcomer of the group, found it helpful to work with Del Aguila, who is perhaps best known for the musical Altar Boyz but also has TheaterWorks experience on shows like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. "[Kevin] has a sense of what works and what doesn't when you're trying to cram all this story into 60 minutes," Bolan says. At their first meeting, Del Aguila recalls, "[Eli] jumped on the piano and started writing right in front of my eyes." They left with a song.
Del Aguila and Bolan had similar instincts about the show's musical influences, which include the Tijuana Brass and music from the zany 80s film Three Amigos. They settled on the main themes in the first draft and stuck with them throughout the workshop process. "In this show there wasn't a tremendous amount of chopping things out entirely and replacing them," Bolan says.
The development process culminates with "mini-tours," fully produced performances for hundreds of little critics. The creative team is on the alert for "wiggle room"---places where the show clearly isn't working. "Even with all of us having done a lot of these shows, we're always surprised at where they wiggle, what holds their attention and what doesn't," says Janki.
These sections get revamped in what Pasternack calls "kamikaze dramatugy," or sometimes tossed completely. That was the case with TheaterWorks' adaptation of Junie B. Jones, where the entire ending was scrapped and started from scratch, using a different book from the series. "It's all about making that show as good as it can possibly be, because you have nothing to hide behind," says Pasternack, referring again to the absence of special effects.
She adds, however, that reaching young people makes the work worthwhile: "Watching them, you know you changed that person's life."
Olivia Jane Smith is a writer based in New York City
Pictured: Austen Nash Boone as Skippyjon Jones. Photo by Jeremy Daniel