- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2007

If you’ve ever had to squelch the squeals or have the neighborhood association approve your hanging flower baskets, you can relate to “The Araboolies of Liberty Street,” an affable and rumble-tumble world premiere musical about the life-sapping qualities of too many rules directed by Janet Stanford and based on Sam Swope’s 1989 picture book.

Mrs. Pinch (Gia Mora, whose sneery smile is as scarily stiff as the rickrack decorating her starched housedresses) and the General (the comically henpecked Howard Stregack) govern Liberty Street through fear and intimidation and a book of rules fatter than the Oxford English Dictionary. Every house has to look exactly the same — a dull, dignified gray — and the children unlucky enough to live on this street cannot play ball, hug their dollies, or even laugh. Everything except breathing — and you can’t do that too loudly either — is verboten. The sole amusement for the children is memorizing the rule book backward and forward.

Simon (Timothy Dale Lewis, playing repression to antsy, poignant perfection) tries to suppress his stuttery giggles with a Rube Goldberg gizmo that claps fake hands over his mouth at the first sign of mirth. Enid (Caroline Ashbaugh O’Neill) strives to be the obedient goody-two-shoes, while Joy (Miriam Liora Ganz) escapes into the unruly recesses of her imagination.

Then, the Araboolies move in — a motley crew of Gypsy-ish Cirque du Soleil types who scale the street’s gray facades like DayGlo spiders, park a lime-green refrigerator on the front lawn, take outdoor bubble baths in an enormous tub and routinely laugh themselves to sleep. Joy is entranced by the new neighbors, especially one named Flower (an astonishingly agile Felicia Curry), a creature who would rather somersault and crab-walk than stride the usual way and who speaks a jumbled, quasi-Jamaican patois that sounds like a daffier version of English.

The noise and color of the Araboolies drive Mrs. Pinch to distraction — and an ever-increasing need for her pills. Yet, for all their clownish antics, what really beguiles the children is that the Araboolies are happy. They express themselves, they revel in being alive and being different — things the children aren’t allowed to do. The racial bias message is gently and entertainingly imparted in the musical, but the message is clear — the presence of foreigners and ethnic groups does change the neighborhood, and for the better.

The first act of “The Araboolies” drags a little, as song after song drives home the idea that the children are stuck on a dead-end street of regulations. Things perk up considerably when the Araboolies literally tumble in, thanks to Robert Dion’s vibrant acrobatic choreography that has the cast cartwheeling and spiraling gracefully through the air. The Araboolies’ quirky otherworldliness is enhanced by Melanie A. Clark’s costumes, a catch-all riot of colors and patterns and such offbeat touches as underpants as vests and shirts as billowy bloomers.

Kim D. Sherman’s music is bright and burbly, more serviceable than memorable, although the songs “Mosquito Girl” and the withering “Weirdos!” do stand out. However, your senses and imagination are most captured by the Araboolies and you could see younger audience members springing to life when they appeared in all their disorderly glory. True to the spirit of the musical, conventions are broken at the end, when the cast throws inflatable balls out into the audience and encourages the children to toss them back and jump around. Anarchy rules, and it is delicious, quintessentially a summertime moment.

THREE STARS WHAT: “The Araboolies of Liberty Street,” book and lyrics by Sam Swope and music by Kim D. Sherman WHERE: Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda WHEN: 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 12. TICKETS: $10 to $20 PHONE: 301/280-1660 WEB SITE: www.imaginationstage.org MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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