Dr Frankenstein is having a good year. In New York City alone, the past few months have seen the opening of the Mel Brooks spinoff musical Young Frankenstein, a more faithful musical adaptation of Mary Shelley's timeless novel, and even a puppet-theatre version. Now, Tada! has joined the bandwagon by presenting "A Perfect Monster," a new, short, and G-rated musical adaptation, by Tada! founder and Artistic Director Janine Nina Trevens (book) and Deirdre Broderick (music and lyrics), directed by Trevens. A crowd of whimsically costumed and acted monsters, fast-moving plot, and the empathetic performance of talented seventeen-year-old actress Saleema Josey as Sibyl, a mad scientist who is still in primary school, will have the youngest audience members captivated. Meanwhile, Trevens's allusions to many of the fable's most iconic incarnations, from Hollywood to Hammer, will keep adult chaperones reasonably well entertained.
The set is dominated by Sibyl's lab, which includes the requisite paraphernalia, including bottles of strange incandescent liquids on shelves and a Macbeth-style bubbling cauldron that promises to birth many a strange organism. It is all bathed in green and purple light, cheering up the foreboding scene.
Like Frankenstein's creature, "A Perfect Monster" is imperfectly made, yet undeniably impressive. The tale begins with music redolent of monster movies, and quickly introduces Sibyl, an antisocial young girl who has no trouble "making friends" -- out of random objects, such as "moldy french fries / and rhinoceros eyes" combined in the cauldron.
Dressed like a pint-sized Peter Cushing in a pastel frock coat, waistcoat, antique trousers and gaiters, Sibyl lives up to her name. The Roman mythological Sibyl of Cumaea was a mythological female clairvoyant who reportedly lived as a recluse in a cave. (Incidentally, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley resurrected the Sibyl in a later novel, disaster-movie precedent The Last Man).
At school, Sibyl is ignored and mocked by her classmates: the vain, pretty, and vapid Mary (Maya Park, alternating with Sophie Golomb), snotty, preppy jock Preston (Brendan Eapen), and class clown Charlie (Christopher Broughton), who tells stupid jokes that the kids, and apparently the audience, are expected to consider hilarious. When she gives a brilliant report on her "science" hobby -- the monster-making experiments -- they don't bother to listen.
Therefore, it's no wonder that Sibyl prefers to spend time with her menagerie of monsters. Unfortunately, each is a manifestation of Sibyl's own fears, frustrations, and seething self-hatred, from the indecisive three-headed Trio (Gabriela Gross, Sophie Silverstein, and Katie Welles) to the dancer with four left feet (Adam Mandala) and a creature dressed ridiculously in a McDonalds french fries container, who has a fork and spoon for hands. As the monsters explain, when Sibyl has a bad day at school, she comes home and makes a monster, then pours all of her rage onto that unfortunate creature.
Finally, Sibyl makes a "perfect monster" and best friend: a winsome female named Perfection (Jasmine Pervez, alternating with Ariana Sepulveda), who gets even with her classmates by beating them at their own games: respectively in sports, beauty, and joke-telling. Sibyl thinks that Perfection "belongs" to her, but must learn that "to make a friend" in the non-architectonic sense, one must be a good friend to others.
Having set up the fascinating problem of the child-heroine's insecurity and its diabolical manifestations, Trevens solves it rather too facilely and in a manner that seems unintentionally reactionary. When Sibyl finally learns her lesson, and resolves to treat her handmade "friends" as people and not objects, she abandons mad science for cake-baking. Soon, Charlie confesses his attraction to Sibyl, offering her a hand-picked bouquet of flowers, and defying Mary and Preston to befriend her and all her monsters. Problem solved.
I am not saying that this adaptation should have gone the way of the original, with alienation resulting in irrevocable catastrophe, but children can have great nonsense-detectors. An alienated, insecure girl will not be healed overnight by a boy's interest. Or, rather, if that's all that takes to bring the child out of her cave, that might be a problem in itself.
The monsters, with costumes constructed by Cheryl McCarron and the late Shelley Norton from concepts by Trevens, are delightful, and are unlikely to frighten even the most easily rattled youngsters. They are all benevolent. The one evidently based on Godzilla sports jazz shoes laced up with bright ribbons along with her scales and tail. Unlike in the source novel, there is no violence whatsoever, and no monsters are either destroyed or driven from home.
The music is lively enough while it's being performed by the Tada! company, but is immediately forgettable. The Tada! company, whose actors range in age from primary school to age 18, comprises a tightly directed and choreographed ensemble led by some very promising leads, particularly Josey and Perez. Most importantly, the cast appears to be having fun onstage.
Tada! makes certain that kids will never get bored by starting the play with a magic show, which fills the time during which the audience is led to their seats. The program is filled with games and activities for fidgeting young spectators. This is a great idea, but some of it is simply wrong. In a match-the-name-to-the-photo game concerning movie monsters, "Frankenstein" is the match for a photo of Boris Karloff in director James Whale's Hollywood classic Frankenstein: but Karloff played the creature, not his creator, Dr Frankenstein. Likewise, the answer to the question "Which author is responsible for the gothic legend of Dracula?" is arguably not the provided answer, "Bram Stoker," as Stoker adapted his story from a "legend" developed decades earlier, by Gothic writer John-William Polidori in his short story "The Vampyre."
Still, I must admit that I was also somewhat alarmed by the play's description of Sibyl's magical process as "science," and also by her happy abandonment of "science" for cake-baking. Possibly, parents who take their primary-school-age daughters to this show should afterwards have a brief chat about what science is, what it isn't, and how there are plenty of scientists--even girl scientists--who have made great friends, and not in seclusion, nor out of spare parts.