Busting rhymes trippingly on the tongue

A new Magic Tree House musical adventure doth cross Shakespeare with hip hop.

Magic Tree House: Showtime with Shakespeare, which makes its New Jersey debut at NJPAC on May 31, is out to convince young audiences that the Bard of Avon is mad fly for a 455-year-old guy.

“(Shakespeare) was probably our first hip hop artist because he wrote such beautiful poetry and had such a knack for language that lends itself quite well to hip hop,” says the musical’s director, Janeece Freeman Clark. “We just added the beat!”

The show’s arrival reunites the Arts Center for the second time with New York Times best-selling author Mary Pope Osborne, whose Magic Tree House adventure series for young readers has sold millions of copies globally and is published in 33 languages. Eight volumes have been re-envisioned as live theater, inviting families to journey from the land of the dinosaurs to Camelot.

A Good Night for Ghosts (No. 42) was the inspiration for the jazz-flavored A Night in New Orleans, whose world premiere was staged at NJPAC in 2012 under Clark’s direction and featured book and lyrics by Murray Horwitz and original songs by lyricist-musician Will Osborne (husband and longtime collaborator of the author) and the great composer Allen Toussaint.

Stage Fright on a Summer Night (No. 25) was a natural for adapting into a second theatrical work, this time in collaboration with George Street Playhouse, and is currently on a nationwide tour culminating at NJPAC. The creatives responsible for translating iambic pentameter into urban wordplay include composer Randy Courts and the team of Will Osborne and Jenny Laird on book and lyrics. 

“We’re honored to partner with Mary and Will, as well as George Street Playhouse, on this important tour. Through Showtime with Shakespeare, the Arts Center is expanding not just its programming, but its programming for young people on a national scale, beyond the four walls of the theater,” says David Rodriguez, NJPAC’s Executive Vice President and Executive Producer.

The many tour stops before Newark are far-ranging: Albuquerque to Abilene and Buffalo to New Bedford. Rodriguez adds that plans are well under way for a larger circuit during the 2019-2020 season.

In the Magic Tree House series, sibling heroes Jack and Annie are whisked away through time via their backyard hideaway, guided by books, curiosity and spunkiness. In the musical A Night in New Orleans, they help young Louis Armstrong discover his trumpet-playing talents. In Showtime with Shakespeare, the duo has an important role in supporting Shakespeare’s unveiling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at London’s Globe Theatre. It’s in merrie olde England that they also encounter the cruelty of bear baiting and the uncertain fate of their friend, Dan the Dancing Bear.

An admitted newbie to hip hop, Will Osborne says that as a musician he’s come away with a new-found appreciation for the art form. “I’ve always been fascinated by language and how words can come together to create rhythm, paint pictures and stir imagination.

“It was the idea of our longtime composer and collaborator, Randy Courts, to do the show in a hip hop style,” he continues. “There’s actually a lot of crossover between Shakespeare and hip hop: unconventional rhyme schemes, lines spoken in verse … Randy is a great musical stylist and we worked together to marry Elizabethan England with contemporary hip hop and rap.”

In February, the seven cast members – who juggle dozens of roles – gathered in NJPAC’s Horizon Black Box Theater to rehearse, prior to departing for a March 11 performance in Las Vegas. They listened and recorded on cell phones as musical director Christopher Littlefield offered instruction on how their vocal nimbleness could best keep pace with the show’s pre-recorded track.

As rehearsals progressed, other elements came into play: the creation of a giant treehouse, the centerpiece of the set, which can be converted into the Globe; props and signage for the tradesmen lining the streets of London Town; and costuming that fuses the early Renaissance with the Age of Aquarius.

Clark, who lives in South Orange and recently directed a revival of Galt MacDermot’s Two Gentlemen of Verona – a musical treatment from the early Seventies – mentions that the groundbreaking diversity of its original Broadway cast is an artistic decision also embraced by Showtime with Shakespeare

“I love the fact that (audiences) will see this diverse group of fabulous singers and actors onstage,” says the director, who is also an NJPAC Teaching Artist. “The unique gifts that they each bring have a collective power. They’re beautiful storytellers and beautiful people in all shapes, all sizes, all colors.”

As Shakespeare wrote, “Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons.” Through Jack and Annie’s chance encounters with famed figures of the past, young theater-goers watch their history lessons leap to life.

“They’re going to take away values like the importance of standing up for what you believe in and standing up for your friends,” Clark notes of children who see the show. “They will hear about the importance of acknowledging your fears and facing them head-on.”

“It’s our job to bring the Magic Tree House worldview to the stage,” concludes Will Osborne. “The books all celebrate curiosity, kindness and inclusion, and this show is no exception. It ends with a song, ‘Thy Life Is a Miracle,’ which may be something many kids who see the show have never heard about themselves. We want kids – and their parents – to leave the theater with a feeling of joy and infinite possibility.”

Ultimately, children will be encouraged to pick up a book to take them to more adventures through the imagination.

April 18, 2019