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To liberally paraphrase that number about the musical scale from The Sound of Music:
“Dough: a dear doughnut,
Ray: a drop of cabaret,
Me: I say ---I like this play…”
I’m singing the praises of the glazes, advocating for the empowerment of the powdered, and suggesting that anyone looking for fun family-friendly musical theatre roll down to near the western end of West 42 Street where Arnie the Doughnut reigns supreme.
As I continue my series about NYMF musicals with some connection to people with cabaret connections, this bubbly musical’s cast features Jennifer Wren, known to cabaret audiences and performers as the bubbly singing co-host of a series that had attracted many of them. It was seen at different venues in the theatre district before its lamented end, and I’d been a regular attendee, catching numerous singers and writers, some for the first time. A combination of open mic and songwriter showcases, called Big Night Out, it even had a catchy theme song of its own. It was written cabaret’s award-winning Bill Zeffiro, its ebullient and sly musical-directing co-host, who then and now was working with many cabaret singers. Arnie the Doughnut is not your big people’s big night out, but a medium-sized afternoon out (or, for one performance, a morning out), out-and-out delightful: the story told in one act at 90 minutes. Back in the day (or night, rather) of Big Night Out, Jennifer sang show tunes (not tot-targeted types), cabaret style, at each of the events and showed strong eyeball-to-eyeball audience connection, spunk, and sparkle. All those qualities make her ideal for children’s theatre where one needs to reach the kids in the audience. Skills include timing the lines and reactions and facial expressions to make sure they “get it” and feel played to. Kids sense if an actor is condescending to them, they drift off if too much is over their heads, they shut down (or won’t shut up) if actors shut them out by keeping the onstage relationships just among actors. Jennifer Wren and everyone in this company knew what to do.
And the many children in the crowd were responsive and mostly very quietly attentive – not with eyes glazed over at the glazed doughnuts, but watching with interest, giggling with amusement, and clapping appreciatively. And guess what: so were the adults, which is not always the case with children’s theatre. It’s an achievement and compliment to say that they do NOT win over the adults in the way that other such shows do: peppering the play with adult humor and grown-up references or winking quips that the kids will miss (or, worse, be confused by). The kids come first. But much here has wide enough appeal to at least tickle the funny bone of the child inside us all the way we grown-ups can appreciate a cartoon that has the prime elements of entertainment. And, after all, who doesn’t like a doughnut? Unlike the real-life versions of the items who onstage come very much alive as singing, dancing, high-spirited, high-calorie and highly opinionated doughnuts, things really are not TOO sweet! Cute, yes. Very. But there’s spice in the recipe, too.
Director/choreographer Adam Arian finds just the right touch to keep things moving without racing or slowly down to dwell too long on points as if children might not have absorbed them yet. Natalie Malotke is associate director/choregrapher. Based on Laurie Keller’s book of the same name (sold and autographed in the lobby), the dialogue by Frances Limoncelli and songs by George Howe are splendid, full of cleverness and bounce. The songs find a good balance between musical theatre-styled sensibilities and the simplicity of songs aimed at the very wee. They are crisp and redolent with character and attitudes. There’s a cast album from the Chicago company for sale in the lobby and, even though some numbers will already be firmly implanted in your head, they make you happy to know their glow and you’d be happy to hear them again. The opening smiley number, about being made of “Sunshiny Goodness,” telling us repeatedly that “life is sprinkled with love” might give the impression it’s going to border on Barney/kindergarten mindlessly upbeat cheer, but fear not: more sophisticated material comes soon. Visuals are nifty: with puppets for those round mini-donut balls, the bakery, flowers, etc. Ken Larson provides an attractively playful and inventively flexible set and –here it comes—props to props designer Justin Perkins.
We see a trio of competitive doughnuts before we meet the title character (whose gleefully excited star entrance rolling off the conveyor belt to belt out his songs gets the kind of welcoming audience applause celebrities on Broadway get). All the sugared treats have marvelous, oversized, colorful costumes designed by Elizabeth Wislar (she did the puppets, too) that are a treat in themselves and a crucial element here. In the trio, the other just-made-today items we see include the perky, pink-hatted, hugely round and fluffy white ball which charismatic Jennifer Wren has a ball strutting in, playing and playing up the self-pleased powdered-sugar doughnut, fluttering her eyelashes coyly and smiling to entice purchase as prime prettiness. (When her freshness genuineness is questioned, her offended, gasping, gaping-mouthed reaction is priceless.) There’s Jane Blass as a French cruller with, yes, a thick ooh-la-la French accent (and a beret and boa and blistering condescending attitude with French words sprinkled in where another doughnut would have chocolate sprinkles, but not much is lost in translation or on the youngsters. Stephanie Fittro, also the dance captain, is your basic jelly donut --- perky, playful, proud, and popular with police officers. She oozes joy (and jelly), then is both hilarious and sympathetic when not purchased come closing time comes and (shudder!!) the dreaded, demeaning discount sign of failure is placed above her, categorizing her as one rejectee among the “Day-Old” items past their prime.
And, as Arnie – who is chocolate with big rainbow sprinkles --- Tom Deckman is ideal. His Arnie is bug-eyed, goofy, naively innocent, bringing idiosynchracies and tics to a disarming personality. At times, he recalls a lovably loyal pet dog ready to give and expect unconditional love and devotion, jumping up and ready for fun times. His goal is to be “the very best donut I can be” …. although he admits he doesn’t know what that means or what exactly lies ahead. What a shock he gets (and acts out the shockeroo, hilariously) when he learns that being “chosen” by a customer --- the goal of his motivated, every-doughnut-for-herself comrades --- does NOT mean a loving, nurturing, plush new suburban life an orphan like Annie might yearn for. Nobody ever told him that a human visitng the shop comes to choose what he chews, not bring home for companionship. “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!!?!?!?!” Arnie cries in true horror and disbelief when the customer takes him home and takes him out of the bag and takes a bite. Deckman’s double takes are doubly delicious. By phone, Arnie consults the baker (also portrayed by versatile Jennifer Wren, with moustache and moxy, made mega-wide-waisted and squat by a hoop-based costume, another swell characterization, with deep voice). Turns out it’s true. What’s a doughnut to do when the psychologically troubled new “roommate” has a lot on his plate—and what’s on the plate is one’s self? Well, you can rest assured that feisty, resourceful Arnie won’t go down easy … at least not via gullet as the customer intended. Why not be friends instead? After all, doughnuts are a dime a dozen (adjust for inflation), but a good pal is hard to find.
Thomas Poarch is the baffled customer, Mr. Bing, who gets more than he expected. He’s effective, but his being socially awkward and fearful makes him kind of lumbering and languidly low-energy in longish scenes with Arnie. Their time together is a big chunk of the play where humans are in the majority. More appealing is Poarch’s character’s first scene, giving freer reign to his O.C.D. with the early, kinetic, twitchy song “My Anxieties.” (He always bought plain doughnuts before, but the bakery was sold out, and he’s flustered, but buys you-know-who.) Talented, focused Jane Blass returns to great effect as the real villain of the piece, the haughty killjoy named Mrs. Plute, a one-woman militaristic campaign against fun. It’s tricky for any actor in children’s show to have to be the imposing, nasty bad guy (or gal) without scaring the teeniest or more timid of the tots. Calibration and humor and the solution and she’s got ‘em both. Threatening and “perfectly putrid in every way” Mrs. Plute (“Her steamroller is on the move…. Keep your opinions mute”) is the president of the condominium community where Mr. Bing lives, a place full of rules where she, well, rules. Are there worthy reasons for these rules or ways around them? Inquiring doughnuts want to know.
An argument can be made for the themes/messages of the story being the importance of finding ways to enjoy life, valuing ourselves and each other as unique individuals with assets (and potential friends), achieve cooperation and take risks through resourcefulness, leading to freedom and achievement, rather than be limited and change can be good. This ends the educational part of the review. But what about the argument that Sweeney Todd made to pie-making Mrs. Lovett that, “The history of the world” tells “who gets eaten and who gets to eat”? Life is not as easy as pie. Or doughnuts. But it’s easy to recommend this musical for kids and those who are kids at heart.
“I’m gonna find adventure and I’m ready for the ride!” sings Arnie, expectantly, “I feel a big transition.” “Will I be satisfied?” wonders Mr. Bing. Come along for the adventure and the ride. I’m satisfied.
The show is at PTC Performance Space, 555 42 Street. Remaining performances are July 18 at 1pm, and two shows on Saturday, July 21: 11am and 2pm. Tickets are $25, no matter how old you are. Programs include a coupon for two free doughnuts if you buy a dozen from –who else?---Dunkin’ Donuts, one of NYMF’s sponsors this year. See www.ArnieTheDoughnutMusical.com for more info on the musical and see www.NYMF.org to learn about the festival’s other shows and tickets or call 212-352-3101 (if a doughnut answers, don’t hang up).
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