Don’t let the words Theatre For Young Audiences fool you.  South Coast Repertory’s TYA productions are treats for theatergoers of all ages. True, most audience members over the age of 12 are probably there as chaperones, but fear not.  In terms of on-and-offstage talent, these shows can’t be beat, and even adults who cringe at the idea of seeing anything G-rated will likely have a great time, with or without kids in tow.

This is certainly true of The Brand New Kid, the latest TYA offering, based on a children’s book by Katie Couric no less, adapted as a musical by composer/co-lyricist Michael Friedman and book writer/co-lyricist Melanie Marnich.

The Brand New Kid in Delasky U.S.A. is Lazlo S. Gasky (Brian Hostenske), fresh off the plane from Hungary.  This brand new second grader’s profusion of snow-blond hair, his geeky wardrobe and glasses, goody-goody manner, foreign accent, and knowledge of geography (“I have an elephantine memory,” he proudly proclaims) immediately categorize him as “the other.” (His classmates think Hungary is where vampires come from, until Lazlo informs them that they’re thinking of Transylvania, which in any case is in Romania.)  

Poor, well-meaning Lazlo soon becomes the target of suspicion by classmates Ellie McSnelly (Erika Whalen), Carrie O’Toole (Jennifer Chang), Peter Barsinsky (Justin Michael Duval) and Ricky Jensen (Justin Figueroa). Suspicion leads to exile in social Siberia with accompanying taunts, spitballs, name-calling (“Hey, Spazlo!”), and pushing around, portrayed forcefully enough to make an impression on young audience members but not so strongly as to cause parents concern. 

Much of Lazlo’s story is told in Friedman and Marnich’s fun, catchy songs, including ”A Brand New Year Song” (“It’s the very first day of a brand new school year!”), “Baseball” (no one wants Lazlo on their team, leading him to wonder “What am I? Invisible?”), “The We Can’t Help Ourselves Song” (sung by can’t-help-themselves bullies Ricky and Peter), “Sad Gaskys” (with Lazlo and his mother bemoaning how neither one fits the world of Delasky), and “The In His Shoes Song” (which has the kids trying to imagine what it would be like to be in Lazlo’s sneakers).

Lazlo’s teacher Miss Kincaid (Jennifer Parsons) seems unaware of playground problems and Lazlo’s mom (Parsons again) can’t do anything to help her son.  Only Ellie (who herself has been the victim of the unfortunate moniker McSnelly) senses that her classmates’ treatment of the boy from Budapest is wrong, and moves out of her comfort zone in order to befriend him.  The two bond over Hungarian pastries (“The Strudel Song”) with the help of Lazlo’s poodle Doodle (Duval), Tree (Figureroa) and Bird (Chang).

Meanwhile, the other kids have begun thinking about their own brands of weirdness. For example, Peter is a closet knitter and Ricky is a bit of a klutz.  (Parents may wish to point out to their children that with names like O’Toole, Barsinky, McSnelly, and Jensen, most Americans come from families who like Lazlo’s were once new to the U.S.) As Lazlo’s classmates get to know him better, they begin to realize how wrong they’ve been and how lucky they are to be living in a world of diversity.

Couric’s tale revolves around one kind of “differentness” but it could just as easily be about kids who are overweight, tall or short for their ages, handicapped, on their way to gay, or just about anything else that inspires cruelty in others. There are lessons to be learned here by pint-sized audience bullies, validation for the bullied, and plenty of post-play parent-child discussion material. (One child informed cast member Duval that he now knows that “pushing is bad,” and won’t be doing it anymore.)  Truth be told, I had a lump in my throat throughout much of the production amidst laughs galore.

Hostenske gives an absolutely endearing performance as Lazlo, the versatile star of SCR’s recent Noises Off revealing fine singing pipes, something he shares with his triple-threat castmates. Whalen is a perky charmer as Ellie, Chang a fun livewire as Carrie, Figueroa an appropriately tough but inescapably likeable Ricky, and Duval as charismatic a bully-in-training as you’re likely to meet. When the latter three put on their Bird, Tree, and Poodle costumes, they’re funnier still, particularly Duval’s Doodle, the pet pooch every kid in the audience would like to take home.

Parsons is a warm-hearted but somewhat clueless Miss Kincaid, a tender, loving Mrs. Gasky, and a hilariously bucktoothed Cafeteria Lady from Hell … sorry, that should be from Heck. (Cafeteria Lady invariably gives the students two choices, then serves them the one they didn’t pick, until Lazlo figures her out and uses reverse psychology, and when that doesn’t work, his compliments do, making him quite possibly the first child in Delasky history to get fries with his lunch.)

The Brand New Kid has been skillfully directed by Shelley Butler with an eye to entertaining both kids and adults. Excellent musical direction by Deborah Wicks La Puma has the cast harmonizing to live-sounding prerecorded tracks.

Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set is straight out of a children’s book with its bright primary colors and cartoon-like shapes, and classrooms and playgrounds that slide in and out. Paloma H. Young’s imaginative costumes are a real treat, with special snaps to four-legged Doodle, two-footed Tree, and Ellie’s enormous backpack with its supposed seventy-three compartments “plus a place for my phone and car keys when I get my car keys.”  Tom Ruzika’s lighting and Mark Johnson’s sound design likewise get an “A” from StageSceneLA. 

South Coast Rep’s TYA productions are short enough (this one’s about an hour plus a fifteen-minute intermission for snacks and restroom visits) that neither adults nor kids should feel antsy, and the entire cast awaits the children outside for autographs.  
Performances through June 5th are low-priced previews, and all children who attend the reduced-priced 11:00 “Target Family Performance” on Saturday June 6th will get a free gift as a bonus, thanks to Target. Does it get any better than this?

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive , Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
May 31, 2009
Production stills courtesy of South Coast Repertory.

Comments are closed.