Curious George — the playful, enthusiastic, lovable monkey who has been amusing children for more than 75 years — just never gets old.
First he showed up as a book character taken from Africa by the Man with the Yellow Hat, then he appeared on multiple television and film productions, as well as a video game. And now he has shown up in a musical: “Curious George and The Golden Meatball,” an adorable version of which opened Friday morning at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre.
One must never “underestimate the power of a little monkey,” the ensemble sings in the Curious George Theme Song. “You never know what’s around the bend/ a big adventure or a brand new friend/ when you’re curious like Curious George!”
In this iteration, Curious George learns to make meatballs from his friend, renowned Chef Pisghetti, just in time for all-you-can-eat meatball day at the restaurant. But no customers show up because they’ve been lured away by a new restaurateur across the street with an automatic meatball-making gizmo. Chef is crushed by a crisis of confidence and refuses to enter the Golden Meatball contest held in her hometown of Rome, Italy. George surreptitiously enters on his friend’s behalf and all kinds of traveling shenanigans ensue, though everyone learns the power of friendship and that the secret ingredient in anything worth doing is love.
It’s a sweet, engaging plot made all the merrier by committed actors and big, bright, kinetic staging. Director Kriss Kuss does wonderful things with this clever little musical.
Technical elements largely help create the enormously colorful atmosphere of the show with pastel painted pylons and set pieces from Jonathan Berg-Einhorn to mimic the book illustrations and create distinct cityscapes; vibrant lighting from Nick Carlson; and bold character specific costumes with great attention to detail from Julianne Babel. Sound Designer Luke Parker’s levels need adjusting with the actors struggling to be heard without microphones above the canned pop accompaniment, but that’s an easy fix moving forward.
Much of the success of this show of course is thanks to the dynamic seven-person cast. Ben Love is a very animated Man in the Yellow Hat with a lovely singing voice; Kristina Kastrinelis is a wonderfully emotive and perfectly Italian Chef Pisghetti; and Kierney Johnson is a terrific dancer, and tremendous in various roles including the package delivery guy (George thinks the bubble wrap is the main event) and the shifty automatic meatball maker. Every cast member makes Mollie Murk’s fun choreography look effortless.
Chaz Arnett Sanders is fabulous as a very kinetic Curious George whose primary language is his movement. Sanders moves and sounds like an acrobatic monkey with exaggerated physical and vocal expression. He connects with the children in the audience sitting on the periphery of the stage area by offering high-fives, fist bumps, sniffs of meatballs, and opportunities to play with his toys as well as cuddling and monkey-talk comments on their stuffed animal versions of him many of them brought. And ultimately he gets them up and dancing on stage with the entire cast at the end — something many of them clearly wanted to do the entire 50 minutes of the show.
Curious George is no exception in HSRT’s tradition of producing high-quality theater for children that not only entertains them (and the grown ups who bring them) but also teaches them how to be theatergoers. It’s in wonderful service to the community and to the art form, which cannot continue to exist without eager audiences in generations to come.
To simply be a spectator in the black box space of the Dewitt Studio Theatre transformed into a false thrust stage watching little children’s faces light up in the presence of talented young actors telling a touching story through colorful characters, song, and dance — it’s a joy. And so is the show itself, for young-at-heart audience members of all ages.
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
July 14-August 11