Theater Review: “The Snowy Day” at Adventure Theatre

A world premiere production of the classic children’s book appeals to kids and adults alike.

By: Jane Horwitz

Alan Wiggins stars as Peter in The Snowy Day. Photograph by Bruce Douglas.

The energetic cast of Adventure Theatre’s The Snowy Day may sparkle with perspiration under the lights, but kids of all ages will easily believe the actors are frolicking, singing, and dancing in the cold snow instead. In its latest production, the theater for young audiences in Glen Echo has commissioned and mounted a world premiere musical based on the Caldecott Award–winning 1962 picture book by Ezra Jack Keats. It’s the second in Adventure Theatre’s African-American Adventure Series of original musicals created by African American artists. (The first was Mirandy and Brother Wind). Now celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publication, The Snowy Day is notable for being the first picture book to feature an African-American child, Peter, as its protagonist.

High-spirited, tuneful, and inventive, the 55-minute musical, wittily staged by director Jessica Burgess, takes Keats’s minimalist fable about a little city boy going out to play in a new snowfall and opens it up in all kinds of ways, while still nodding to the original. Peter still conjures up his own adventures, but now his Ma gives him ideas to work with, and those adventures take the shape of other actors in dual or triple roles. Washington-based David Emerson Toney, an actor and playwright, penned the script, transforming Keats’s quiet, contemplative story with new events and characters and more than a dash of attitude. The result is different in tone but the same in heart. Toney also makes sure we know Peter and his mother live in a southern city where snow is so rare that Peter has never seen it before, which ups the ante for his special day.

High-spirited, tuneful, and inventive, the 55-minute musical, wittily staged by director Jessica Burgess, takes Keats’s minimalist fable about a little city boy going out to play in a new snowfall and opens it up in all kinds of ways, while still nodding to the original. Peter still conjures up his own adventures, but now his Ma gives him ideas to work with, and those adventures take the shape of other actors in dual or triple roles. Washington-based David Emerson Toney, an actor and playwright, penned the script, transforming Keats’s quiet, contemplative story with new events and characters and more than a dash of attitude. The result is different in tone but the same in heart. Toney also makes sure we know Peter and his mother live in a southern city where snow is so rare that Peter has never seen it before, which ups the ante for his special day.

Peter (Alan Wiggins) is sleeping cozily in his bed in his brown flannel jammies when Ma (Giselle LeBeau-Gant) wakes him and tells him to look out the window. Snow! And school is cancelled! In a clever musical number, Ma gets her son to eat a little oatmeal and brush his teeth, then packs him into a fire-engine-red snowsuit (just like Keats’s illustrations) so big it nearly swallows him. (The witty costumes are by Deb Sivigny). Outside Peter goes, singing at the top of his lungs, “Come outside and play, whaddya say, whaddya say,” hoping someone will join him in the snow. Instead, he’s greeted by crabby old Mrs. Krinkle (as a puppet, voiced by acress Lauren Dupree) in one of the apartment building windows, chastising him to be quiet, and nerdy, hypochondriac neighbor kid Arnold—also a puppet, voiced by Calvin McCullough—who’s afraid to come down.

So Peter must make his own fun, and soon his imagination populates the stage with a cast of characters that includes a talking snowman named Harold (also McCullough, this time onstage in the flesh—er, snow), the genial Snow Pirate (LeBeau-Gant), and a bird named Roberta D. Crow (Dupree, in the flesh—er, feathers). The three become inseparable, and the play follows their magical adventures throughout the day.

The occasional songs, with music and lyrics by Darius Smith, range from gently jazz-inflected to rousing R&B, all of them catchy, and one of them, “Walk This Way,” a real rouser that stays humming in the brain. Choreographer Kurt Boehm gives the cast splendid, kid-centric athletic moves that work handily in the small playing area, with the young audience so close. And the set, designed by Timothy J. Jones, pays particular homage to Keats’s distinctive illustrations—tall, jewel-colored rectangles and trapezoids connoting city-style apartment buildings, most with a single window up high.

Wiggins, an adult actor with a strong singing voice and graceful dance technique, makes a winning and utterly innocent Peter. As his Ma, the Snow Pirate, and, in a kind of epilogue, the slightly sinister Mother Sun, LeBeau-Gant shows wit and transformative acting skills. Dupree is a hoot as cranky Mrs. Krinkle, and amusing but a smidge over-the-top as the hyperfriendly crow. McCullough has real comic gifts, both as the timid Arnold and the snowman, Harold. Without giving anything away, the show has a couple of low-tech but nifty special-effects moments—one of them right at the end—that will surprise and delight kids. While walking back to her car, this reviewer overheard a girl of perhaps five or six exclaim to her parents, “I have to say, I was not expecting THAT at all!”

The Snowy Day is at Adventure Theatre through February 12. Tickets ($18) are available through Adventure Theatre’s website.