‘Free to Be’ turned timeless and family-friendly11/27/2013
In the elementary schools of Ames and Gilbert, the kids got quite a treat last week. They enjoyed a mini-musical, a selection from “Free to Be… You and Me,” the latest production of Ames Community Theater (ACT). Yet according to the director, Lynn Lloyd, the adults involved were the real beneficiaries.
“The kids were just amazing,” Lloyd said, during a dress rehearsal. “They sang along.”
Forty years ago, this wouldn’t have seemed so marvelous. “Free to Be,” conceived by Marlo Thomas, appeared as a TV special in 1974. Featuring celebrities from the young Michael Jackson to the old Mel Brooks, it mixed sing-along numbers and blackout comedy into a variety revue for blended families, kid-friendly, but all about equality. The show enjoyed a long afterlife in reruns and books, and these adapted the material in various ways. In Ames, Lloyd went seasonal.
“We brought out the holiday flavor,” she explained.
Yet that flavor never overwhelms the recipe, throughout these 20-some pieces. On the wall hangs a Santa hat, but it’s rare to see anyone wearing it. One adult (playing a kid) has a Christmas monologue, but the bit is brief — and lame, actually, no more than schmaltz. The Thanksgiving sketch, similarly, calls for feeding the world, but it arrays both kids and groanies in a bright, rhyming give-and-take. Plus, you’ve got to give props for the turkey hat.
Overall, ’tis the season to be “Free to Be,” rather than to honor tradition. The set is homey, with a phone on one wall and the music onstage. The pianist, ACT regular Emily Thurmaier, also takes part in the hijinks, and even when she swings into “It’s Alright to Cry,” the tune feels nothing like the blues.
Rather than a Yule time story, “Free to Be” develops as a life journey. Its opening (written by Mel Brooks) presents two newborns, and Mike and Marla Miller, well into middle age, prove adept at the baby talk. Props for the wide-brimmed bonnets! After that, even when the babies return, other characters grow older. The alternation between speech and song keeps the momentum brisk, but the subjects get into adult quandaries such as friendship and parenting. The climax of the second act remakes Atalanta’s race as a comedy of women’s empowerment, and there follows an upbeat take on “The Old Woman in a Shoe,” in which Cheryl Kimberly nicely rediscovers the child within. At its best, the show renders its ’70s issues timeless; its argument for equality connects to sexual orientation.
What’s worst here are the occasional slowdowns, as if Coke kept teaching the world to sing long after the stuff went stale. “Atalanta” could use trimming, though Hannah Longnecker renders the girl with charisma. Indeed, perhaps the greatest pleasure of this party confection is enjoying the tricks players come up with. Both Mary Howell Sirna and her 8-year-old daughter make terrific faces, and the way Brian Parrish throws around his big body and voice, you think of a puppy in a room full of rubber balls. CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.
Ames Community Theater, “Free to Be… You and Me” www.actorsinc.org Starting Nov. 29 Actors Theater, Ames