Advice from an 8-year-old informed playwright Liz Duffy Adams as she created a swashbuckling musical for Children's Theatre.
Her niece gave her a full critique, inventing characters and filling in the blanks of Adams' story. The niece even named some characters, including the villainous pirate king Johnny Johné and a slender young man named Tito Orlando. Those two characters are in "Buccaneers," Adams' inventive musical that premiered last weekend at the Children's Theatre. The show, composed by Ellen Maddow, centers on an adolescent runaway who becomes a heroine on a pirate ship.
It is not the only work by Adams that Twin Cities theatergoers will get a chance to see this season. Next spring, Park Square Theatre will produce the regional premiere of "Or," Adams' 2009 off-Broadway comedy about pioneering Restoration dramatist Aphra Behn.
Adams has been jetting in and out of the Twin Cities this summer for rehearsals of "Buccaneers," which she created entirely from her imagination.
"What thrills me about pirates is this theme of freedom," she said. "Of course, it's all a myth. Pirates lead ruthless, violent lives. But there's this question of how do you live a good life, in a moral sense, and be free. It's almost impossible, because if you dig down into it, we're implicated, enmeshed in immoral systems."
The sea has long been a part of Adams' life: She grew up in Essex County on the north coast of Massachusetts before escaping to New York University with the intention of becoming an actor. When Adams, who is 5 feet 3, realized that she would not be a leading lady, she started writing and found some success. Her first play, "A Fabulous Beast," was produced in a small off-Broadway theater and starred a young, rising actor named Edie Falco.
"She was terrific in it," said Adams of the now-famous actor best known for starring on "The Sopranos." "It's been really fun watching her career."
Adams used that play, which she now describes as "very young, overwrought and edgy," to get into graduate school. At Yale, she studied with Mac Wellman, Suzan-Lori Parks and Eric Overmyer, among others.
"What I learned there was how to forge my own path," she said.
In "Buccaneers," which is set during the Victorian era, Enid Arabella's parents have fallen on hard times. She gets wind of their plans to send her away and decides to flee, taking to the high seas. Enid is captured by pirate tyrant Johnny Johné, whose crew is made up entirely of dragooned youngsters. She leads a mutiny and, with her fellow child rulers, decides to create a new, just order.
Megan Fischer plays Enid and Bradley Greenwald plays Johnny Johné.
"Not only is this a wonderfully raucous piece of musical theater with rousing African and Irish tunes, the themes are very relevant to today," said director Peter Brosius.
"In rehearsal, we've talked about the Arab Spring, Reconstruction, suffrage, the Constitutional Convention," said Brosius. "We've also talked about the power of language to change history and transform minds, as Enid Arabella does. The show is not just about overthrowing an unjust order, but about power and about the kind of society we want to live in."
Those are some heady debates for a children's musical.
"Let people know that this is a comedy with singing, dancing and a happy ending," Adams said, smiling. "It really is fun and spunky."
Was she concerned about this children's show seeming to become too serious, thematically?
"Children are not frightened by scary themes," she said. "In fact, they need it. They need stories of great danger and darkness because, possibly, it reassures them that they can survive."
She expounded: "It's like the way kittens and lion cubs play," she said. "We need to play danger because the world is a dangerous place."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 Twitter: @rohanpreston