“Petite Rouge,” playing through March 25 as part of Synchronicity Theatre’s spring repertory season at 7 Stages, is a family musical based on the popular children’s book of the same name by Mike Artell and Jim Harris. It tells a Cajun version of the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” The Big Bad Wolf becomes an alligator, the path to grandmother’s house becomes a boat ride through the bayou, and the basket of goodies is — what else? — a big pot of gumbo.
Justin Anderson’s staging of this new children’s musical is charming, and the score by Joan Cushing is energetic, varied and fun. The three-member chorus of storytellers, who take on a variety of roles from hunters to Mardi Gras revelers, stand out in a strong cast. They deliver a hilarious and soulful gospel number (lamenting a chipmunk eaten by an alligator) that nearly stops the show. The blues-inflected refrain of the villainous reptile suits the character perfectly, and Brian Harrison delivers it with delicious intensity.
Some of the musical numbers, including the title song, are surprisingly somber, even plaintive, and don’t have a particularly Cajun or Zydeco feeling. But most of the songs are delightful. Live musicians playing the music would have really brought the show to life; fortunately, the energetic cast mostly makes up for it.
Jeffery Martin’s lovely and detailed set, with its wooden walkways and swamp shanty, provides plenty of space and lots of different areas for the action to unfold in, impressive in such a small theater. The atmosphere is made complete by the Spanish moss and swamp mist that pervade the room. Even the before-show announcement to turn off cell phones is delivered with a Cajun spin.
The show tells us a bit too much about Petite Rouge’s desire to see the big world out there. It’s all nicely done, but it’s not an impulse we want to see punished or reprimanded. It’s great, however, to see Rouge use her wits to outsmart the alligator (with hot sauce, no less) rather than helplessly relying on a hunter to come to her rescue.
Some of the references in the songs seem made to fly straight over childrens’ heads, aimed to be caught by their parents in a fun, mischievous way. There’s nothing bawdy, but when the hunters sing about carving up a gator carcass to sell the skin to Neiman Marcus, parents may smile while the kids scratch their heads.
In the illustrations for the original story, Petite Rouge is a duck, her brother Tejean is a cat, the riverboat captain is a frog, and so on. The musical keeps this conceit, but it might have made more sense to lose it. In an illustrated children’s storybook, a duck with a cat for a brother has a sort of sense; on stage, a human playing a duck that’s basically a human seems strange. The script keeps reminding us that Petite Rouge is a duck, but there doesn’t seem to be any point to the whole device. Why not just have human characters on stage contending with a talking alligator? So many humans as animals as humans becomes confusing.
But all in all, in spite of a few minor quibbles, “Petite Rouge” serves up a spicy mixture of humor and music that gives a new flavor to a very old story. Synchronicity’s energetic production makes for a great, foot-stomping way for both parents and children to let the good times roll.