On two successive Saturdays, my daughter and I saw Free To Be... You and Me at Synchronicity Theatre and Disney's Mulan at the Alliance Children's Theatre. It wasn't until after the fact that I realized that both kid-oriented plays delivered the same basic message. Nearly every piece of children's entertainment created in my lifetime seems to hinge on the moral "Believe in yourself," but Free to Be and Mulan both apply that adage more specifically to identity and gender roles of boys and girls. And while both prove to be perfectly entertaining, they each can look a little dated in reflection of the time period of their source material.
A generational touchstone comparable to "Schoolhouse Rock," Free To Be You and Me originated in 1972 as a record album, ABC After School Special and illustrated book, credited to actress "Marlo Thomas and Friends" (who include Carl Reiner, Judy Blume and Shel Silverstein). On stage, Free To Be could be a jukebox musical (or maybe a juicebox musical), linking together famous songs like "Parents Are People." The action follows four children (Corey Bradberry, Tracy Vaden Moore, John Reed and Caitlin Smith) who meet as babies (i.e., puppets) in a playpen, then get a little older, sing, play with oversized toys and... well, that's about it. Synchronicity's set features a working seesaw that turns on its axis and proves both hypnotic and dizzying.
The most pointed conflict concerns one boy's wish to have doll, despite the scorn of his friends; a tomboyish girl's interest in sports attracts less disdain. In Synchroncity's fourth production, Free To Be conveys how much looser gender roles have become in nearly four decades; the dollie-desire would cause far less name-calling and playground controversy a generation later. Sweetly sung, Free To Be feels very much a product of the 1970s brand of I'm-Okay-You're-Okay positivity, but conveys little that you probably don't already know, and avoids the kind of irony or narrative friction that would engage grown-up audiences. Syncronicity's other family shows like Bunnicula, The Snow Queen and A Year With Frog and Toad enjoyed broader appeal.
Most families probably know Disney's 1998 cartoon feature Mulan, and may well have it in their collection of DVDs to pacify youngsters. The stage version follows the arc of the animated film as teenage Mulan (Leslie Bellair), another tomboy, chafes against the constrictions of being a typical meek girl, good for marrying, having sons and doing housework. The Chinese emperor calls each family to provide a soldier to the army to defend against invading huns, so Mulan impersonates a young man to save her father (Brandon O'Dell), who suffers an injury from his previous military service. Given Bellair's pixie-ish stage presence and the threat of execution if Mulan gets found out, the stunt seems far more reckless than its worth.
If you've marveled at the stage spectacle of The Lion King musical, you should lower your expectations for Mulan. Like the Alliance's Aladdin stage musical of a few years ago, Mulan offers a streamlined, "reduced" version of the screen story and cuts narrative corners in some unsatisfying ways. If the original has an iconic image, it's probably Mulan cutting off her ponytail, but the play only has her tuck her hair under a hat. The film's spectacular set-piece, with an army of Huns rushing down a mountain pass, is conveyed only with shadows and sound effects (unlike Lion King's thrilling gazelle stampede). At times the military posturing proves unintentionally comic. The Hun general Shan Fu boasts that his army numbers "in the thousands!" sounding like Austin Powers' Dr. Evil blackmailing the world for the now-unimpressive sum of "One million dollars!"
Nevertheless, the Alliance production features appealing sets and costumes, and the nicest touch turns out to be the flat but towering puppets that represent the family's watchful ancestors. The songs aren't as memorable as the better Disney musicals, but the addition "Keep 'Em Guessin'" suggests a funked-up take on Aladdin's "Never Had a Friend Like Me." And while the zany dragon-puppet Mu Shu (voiced by Bernard Jones) remains an anachronistic annoyance, he seems less superfluous to the plot than he did in the film.
Mulan scores relevant political points with its argument that women can serve in combat and bring honor to their families in ways that might violate the letter of old traditions, but not their spirit. Like the original film (which featured drag actor Harvey Fierstein in a supporting role), Mulan feels like a peculiarly 1990s-era endorsement of cross-dressing: Mulan dresses as a man to save her father, her comrades-in-arms dress as women to save the Emperor; the actors occasionally play drag roles, like Jones' matchmaker or Bethany Irby as both Mulan's mother and a macho soldier. (It's like a flashback to when Hollywood wanted to pay lip-service to how gay-friendly it was.) Take on its own terms, Mulan entertains in a modest way while insisting to thine own self be true.
Sarcasm check on Aisle 13.
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