Building characters

Playwright introduces Daniel Tiger and other Mister Rogers’ friends to YOUR neighborhood


There’s at least one important lesson Jeremy Dobrish was taught when he began writing musicals for little kids: You’re never too old to learn.


The Maplewood resident is the wordsmith behind Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood LIVE: King for a Day!, a musicalization of the PBS KIDS’ hit spinoff, featuring characters from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Daniel and his pals bring the Land of Make-Believe to life by kicking off a national tour at NJPAC, under the direction and choreography of Jennifer Rapp, for performances on Saturday, Oct. 14 at 2 and 5:30pm.


When he first tried his hand at scripting for very young audiences, Dobrish was surprised by the challenges posed by creating conflict and drama in the plotlines. He explains it by describing the caper of the missing socks: A character can lose his socks, and that would be the dilemma, but another character can never steal someone else’s socks.


“What I came to figure out was that nobody in that world could do anything mean to anybody else. It was kind of eye-opening for me, that at a certain age” – 3 to 6 years old – “it’s what the kids need,” Dobrish says.


He had some strong back-up during the writing process. Before imagining scenarios for Daniel, Dobrish spent the better part of one day consulting with experts at the Fred Rogers Company, which continues the legacy of the children’s television pioneer with gentleness and homespun wisdom. The company’s messaging is contained in a handbook vetted by child psychologists and other professionals in child development.


Dobrish, who graduated Wesleyan University with a double major in theater and psychology, says the company’s guiding principles and strategies were “a great arsenal to have.”


“I think the overarching message – this is no surprise – has to do with kindness,” he says. “Daniel gets made king for a day and he thinks, well, that’s so much fun. I get to have power. I get to order people around. He comes to learn that’s not what being a good king is about. How do you be kind and how does a king and everybody bestow kindness on each other?”


The run time for a television episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is under 30 minutes and includes two tales and a few songs. The hour-long live version samples moments from various episodes and is packed with 20 to 30 shorter tunes. On TV, there’s no limit to the number of characters that can appear; in theater, actors are frequently double- and triple-cast, so the writer has to keep on top of who’s on stage at any given moment or whose appearance could be delayed by a quick-change.


Introducing children to their imaginary friends up-close and in three dimensions, rather than on the flat-screen, is frequently the first step in a child’s interaction with the performing arts – even though it’s not unusual for them to think they’re going to the movies. Dobrish says there’s no substitute for the communal experience kids share at Daniel Tiger when they realize, “Wow, everybody feels this way!” or “Everybody thinks that’s funny!”


“These are actors on stage telling you a fictional story. It doesn’t matter; you get it,” the playwright elaborates. “You get invested in the character and in themes. And you care. The kids have a bond with Daniel, and (the characters) go through the same kind of things that we do.”


Dobrish singles out theater as an essential component of learning for all youngsters.


“I’m a firm believer in kids doing theater,” he says. “I think theater is an incredible way to learn about teamwork, collaboration, personal responsibility and pressure. Opening night is opening night and you need to be ready to learn your lines and your blocking. Kids rise to the challenge, and they do it.


“Theater people in the business world can manage a budget, deal with a timeline and manage a team. It’s an incredible training ground in terms of the skills that you’ll need in life.”


Tickets to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood LIVE: King for a Day! range from $29-$79 and are available through, 1-888-GO-NJPAC (466-5722) or at the box office, One Center St., Newark.


More good, clean fun at NJPAC


Family shows at NJPAC appeal to all generations, from tots to great-grandparents. And while it’s inevitable that you’ll be badgered for magic wands and light sabers, there’s no better takeaway than the “remember when?” memories you’ll share for years.


Here are some best bets for the 2017-18 season:


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets™ in Concert with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (Oct. 28): More and more adults are discovering that pairing a beloved movie on the wide screen with the excitement of live orchestration creates ear AND eye candy for youngsters – and introduces them to the concert hall experience. Act fast, this is always a hot ticket.


PAW Patrol Live! (Dec. 9 and 10): The Nick Jr. animated series – about a team of pups that can be counted on to fetch help – is now a musical stage show titled “Race to the Rescue.” Lots of action and high energy promised for preschoolers.


One weekend, two Nutcrackers! The Hip Hop Nutcracker (Dec. 15), with guest MC Kurtis Blow, returns with good reason: Family audiences can’t get enough of this hard-driving and totally captivating mash-up of Tchaikovsky’s classic, set in New York City. For balletomanes who prefer a more traditional approach, the stately State Ballet Theatre of Russia brings a lavish, large-ensemble production of The Nutcracker (Dec. 16) to jewel-like Prudential Hall.


Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, Year of the Dog (Feb. 10 and 11): The lunar new year will be associated with characteristics like loyalty, companionship and faithfulness – the last trait especially embodied by this dance company, which performs annually at NJPAC. Young audiences thrill to the acrobatics, colorful ribbon dances, and rollicking giant dragon and lions.


Lightwire Theater, Moon Mouse, A Space Odyssey (March 3): This magical combination of puppetry, dance and artistic use of “el wire” (think neon) brings whimsical creatures to life. Entranced audiences are kept in the dark – the better to see this glowing production of Marvin the Mouse’s space adventure.


Popovich Comedy Pet Theater (March 17): Longtime circus performer Gregory Popovich searches animal rescue shelters to turn unknowns into stars. With a practiced eye, he identifies the unique talents of his canines, cats and other critters (high jumpers, divas, natural comedians) and all of them put on the best doggone show ever.


Aug. 7, 2017