Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood
nytheatre.com review by Lyssa Mandel
September 25, 2007
If the best children's theatre is that which appeals to both tikes and their elder counterparts, then Joan Cushing's Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood is not doing too badly for itself. This explosively colorful rendition of a childhood classic, set in the swampy, down-home environs of New Orleans, has a saucy flavor and a cheekiness that lets it do double duty as an after-dark romp.
Cushing, who has brought five musical adaptations of children's books to regional and national success, can also be credited for the punchy, thematically sound music and lyrics of Rouge. Between Cushing and director-choreographer Michael Bobbitt, the show's six actors—some of them doubling as members of the so-called "Swamp Chorus"—are in sturdy hands, with nary a misstep in physicality, intention, or style.
Each of the fable's familiar characters is outfitted, thanks to costume designer Reggie Ray, with the representative headpiece of a particular animal and festooned with an ingenious variety of patterns, fabrics, and baubles to give the nearly set-less space a feeling of fullness and warmth. The plucky Petite Rouge (or Little Red) herself is adorably decked out as a duck in a peasant dress, the "Big Bad Wolf" appears here, fittingly, as a gator named Claude with a penchant for gourmet cooking, and so on. I experienced a sharp childhood memory of watching Zoobilee Zoo on fuzzy television on Saturday mornings, and it was enough to woo me into Rouge's swirly, swampy, larger-than-life world.
The adventure gives a surprisingly fresh makeover to a story everyone has heard a million times, with flickers of Southern and Cajun dialect, a mess of jokes about the values of hot sauce, and musical styles ranging from bluegrass to jazz to zydeco. Petite Rouge, played by a spunky but sometimes sugary-sweet Felicia Curry, sets out from the comfort of her Mama's home with a basket of goodies for Grandmere and her fraidy-cat friend TeJean in tow. Wending their way by raft through the swamp, distractions, naturally, abound. While TeJean, portrayed with good-natured eagerness by Billy Bustamante, plays the voice of reason and caution, Petite Rouge is lured into the idea of exploring the world and sweet-talked off her path by the suave—and of course hungry—gator. The usual hijinks ensue, complete with wacky disguises, a riverboat, and a stopover in New Orleans on Mardi Gras.
Bobby Smith is an absolute standout as Claude. Smith has mastered the role of sinister, French-accented villain with panache, and manages a range of facial expressions and physicality that are big enough for the likes of a fairy tale but simultaneously genuine enough to win over the stuffiest of cynics. Claude's big number, "I'm Hungry!" (followed later by the "I'm Hungry Reprise") elicits deserved belly laughs.
As for its music, Petite Rouge is at its best during upbeat numbers, which are accompanied by careful, sharp choreography and are a pleasure to watch. Here is perhaps the only show in existence that makes a hilarious statement about hunting animals for their pelts; in "Holiday for Trappers," Claude's ultimate foils (yet more roles for the members of the Swamp Chorus) sing about the joys of making fashion out of gator tails. Like most of the show, the number is snappy, harmless fun for the kiddies but sassy and snicker-worthy for the grown-ups. The sometimes requisite cheesiness of children's theater does rear its head during sparser moments, as in Rouge's "Waiting for Life to Start," and at the show's rather precious finale. But by then, luckily, the hot sauce will have gone to your head—it's hard to resist being won over by a band of crooning animals cruising on the Bayou.