Theater Review: “The Gift of Nothing” at the Kennedy Center

A world-premiere holiday musical based on the comic strip “Mutts”—for little kids only.
Theater Review: “The Gift of Nothing” at the Kennedy Center
Photograph by Scott Suchman.

There’s one comic strip I read these days (well, until “Doonesbury” comes back from hiatus): Patrick McDonnell’s sweet, simple, funny, humane, and often silly “Mutts,” a brilliantly drawn leap into the inner life of dogs and cats, equal in artistry to the two greatest strips of the last 50 years, “Peanuts” and “Calvin and Hobbes.”

When I heard the Kennedy Center had commissioned a family musical of McDonnell’s wonderful “Mutts” book The Gift of Nothing—in which Mooch the cat tries to find the perfect present for his pal Earl the dog—I couldn’t resist, even though I haven’t been a kid since Snoopy was in his newsprint prime, and I don’t have kids of my own.

Adapted by McDonnell, local playwright/director Aaron Posner, and Posner’s wife, actress Erin Weaver, with songs by Andy Mitton, The Gift of Nothing is a pleasant way for a family with small children—very small children—to pass an hour during the holidays. The Kennedy Center bills it as a show for ages four and up, but I’d bet a good portion of the audience couldn’t see their fourth birthday over the horizon yet, and anyone older than about six would likely be impatient with the board-book-style dialogue and songs.

Unlike the comic strip, which has intergenerational appeal, this is a musical for preschoolers. As such, it it’s bright, bouncy, and easy to follow, with a warm message against holiday commercialism and in favor of companionship and love as the most meaningful gifts.

Nickolas Vaughan shines as the impulsive feline Mooch, his black-clad body slinky, agile, and unguardedly goofy as he gets excited about his gift idea or wraps himself around his “person,” Millie, played by an endearing Rachel Zampelli, a few decades younger and at least 50 pounds lighter than her comic-strip counterpart. Joseph Patrick O’Malley is winningly nerdy as Ozzie, Earl’s human dad and the cartoonist’s alter-ego (whose inspiration for the strip was his own dog Earl).

A weak link for longtime “Mutts” fans (i.e., grownups) is that Earl is played by an actress, Maggie Donnelly. She’s fine in the part, but why have a boy dog named Earl portrayed by a woman? No doubt it’s to widen the play’s appeal to both genders—as if young girls can’t relate to a dog and cat that are both male?

To someone (i.e., that grownup again) for whom the gold standard of the comic-strip-turned-musical is the melodic sophistication and verbal wit of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the songs in The Gift of Nothing are unmemorable, even clunky at times. But the little ones in the audience seemed to be having fun—helped by generous audience participation, a nice touch. Besides, when you’re three or four, memorable isn’t so important—it’s what’s in the moment that counts. And that’s actually an idea Earl, Mooch, and their friends can get behind.

“The Gift of Nothing” is at the Kennedy Center through December 28. Running time is one hour, with no intermission. Tickets ($20) are available online.

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Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.