Children's book author Ezra Jack Keats has earned many accolades for his collection of stories and illustrations about the adventures of small children living in low-income areas of the city. As the son of immigrants residing in Brooklyn during the 1940's, Keats had firsthand experience with this setting, which inspired him to focus his tales on the excitement and mischief a child can indulge in when growing up with a diverse group of friends and neighbors in an inner-city tenement. Tada!, an innovative youth theater featuring a talented cast of young performers between the ages of 8 and 18, takes us straight to the heart of a 1971 apartment building in Apt. 3, adapted for the stage by Davidson Lloyd with fast-paced dance numbers directed and choreographed by Joanna Greer.
Staying true to the book's bright watercolor illustrations, Apt. 3 is a light show of mood-defining colors, the most striking being a blue screen on the back wall, where the audience watches the hunched silhouette of a man with a harmonica playing a somber, soulful tune. Brothers Sam (Javier Cardenas) and Ben (Monk Boyewa Washington) have just realized they are locked out of their apartment when they hear the melody for the first time, and they wander down the halls hoping to find its source.
Transparent black doors on wheels are rearranged to create long-winding hallways and doorways to apartments that Sam and Ben put their ears to, fascinated with the different voices, accents, and conversations they can hear behind each one. The angrier tenants scare Ben, who wants to return home, but older brother Sam refuses to turn back until they find the man creating the haunting music.
The story's climactic moment comes at the end of their journey when the mysterious man reveals his identity, opening the children's ears to the music they hear every day, in the halls where they live and in the voices of people they know. This realization nicely concludes the piece with an uplifting message about the beauty that can be found in the shadows of a dreary tenement building.
After a short blackout and set change, we are introduced to the next Keats tale, Maggie and the Pirate, written and composed by Winnie Holzman and directed by Janine Nina Trevens. For Maggie the setting moves outdoors to a sunny backyard with a big yellow bus and a paint-smudged tire swing. The Narrator (Nicholas Stewart) introduces the audience to a spunky young girl named Maggie (Mary Claire Miskell), who lives with her family on the bus. One fateful afternoon, when Maggie and her friends are at the supermarket, a mysterious pirate sneaks into her backyard and steals her beloved pet cricket, Niki.
Though the surface of this tale is humorous and lighthearted, the young actors tackle their dialogue with a gravity you wouldn't expect to find in a children's show. Maggie's reaction to the stolen cricket is not dismissed as a silly, childish problem but as a serious wrongdoing that has brought tears and anguish to the life of a genuinely nice young girl. Fortunately, she has loyal friends, who divide into groups and search for Niki in a fun series of musical vignettes.
If the children enjoy these two Keats productions, their involvement with the show does not have to end with the curtain call. Those enthused about Apt. 3 can purchase harmonicas in the lobby, while those preferring Maggie and the Pirate can opt for black eye patches. In return for this evening of entertainment, the Narrator kindly requests that the audience "sit there, listen, and try not to set the place on fire," a small concession for the privilege of experiencing two productions as inventive and heartwarming as these.