Eugene Weekly : Theater : 8.2.07

Still Relevant, Still Fun
Free delights the little ones — and their parents

What EW reader does not have a dog-eared copy of Free to Be … You and Me smushed into the bookshelf, the accompanying album warping in a parent’s garage? Free to Be was conceived by actress Marlo Thomas in the early ’70s to provide alternative life lessons for her niece. Thomas was joined in her creative endeavor by many friends, including Judy Blum, Carl Reiner and Shel Silverstein. The resulting book sets traditional children’s literature on its head. In a series of songs, poems and short stories boys play with dolls and princesses choose their own futures.

Vickie (Rebecca Morus), Janet (Charlotte Gallagher), Richard (Jermaine Golden) and William (Joseph Oyala) sing the gender blues

The adaptation for stage by Douglas Love and Regina Safran follows William and Janet, two friends growing up, exploring their feelings and questioning society’s expectations. They are joined by Richard and Vickie, kids representing modern sterotypes, and the four children sing, create stories and imaginary worlds, and eventually realize that children are free to be whatever they choose. The show includes the very best from the book, such as “Boy Meets Girl,” where two babies are debating the differences between boys and girls, “Parents are People” and “Ladies First,” based on Silverstein’s poem about a “tender young thing” who always has to go first — even when “first” is into the jaws of a tiger.

Ably directed by James Engberg, the cast approaches the play as play. Props are made of the toys strewn across the stage, and characters frequently dress up and play pretend. The actors are charming and energetic in their roles. Rebecca Morus nails the obnoxious yet lovable pinafored Vickie. Andrew Barton gently accompanies the antics of the show with guitar and harmonica and takes a hysterical turn as a less-than-fearsome tiger. There are some wonderfully silly moments, like babies in top hats and bow ties dancing in an infant-meets-vaudeville manner. All but the most jaded 3-6 year-olds will love it.

I was afraid the show might be dated. In 2007, don’t all little boys have dolls? What’s William’s issue in this brave new world of stay-at-home dads? Yet I was surprised by the accuracy of the sports-crazed Richard and shiny-shoe obsessed Victoria. Owen, my 4-year-old son, was on the edge of his pig-and-forest-patterned seat, for gender and what it means are hotly debated concepts on his playgrounds. His favorite character Richard (played on high octane by Jermaine Golden) was still sports-obsessed by the end of the show but had learned the lesson of choice and acceptance. This concept Owen tried to discuss with Golden after the show, but my son was only able to get out a few words before being struck dumb, overcome with awe by the actor. So we’ve been discussing it at home, which is exactly what this show sets out to do: generate children’s thought and questions about gender and society. Pretty cool.

Day Island Park, tucked in along the river just beyond the bridge that leads into Springfield, is a great venue. Do be sure to get a seat up front, as the trees soak up the sound of the piano and guitar. And a note to parents: Just because it is children’s theater in a park does not mean it’s OK to take a call on your cell, even if you are whispering. It is OK to sing along though!

Free to Be … You and Me plays at Island Park at 11 am through Saturday, Aug. 4 and at Amazon Park in Eugene Aug. 7 – 11. Tix available at the door; groups can reserve tickets by calling 346-4192.