Among all the ways to cope with a dreary, damp grey Ithaca weekend, watching children’s theater should be at the top of your list. Besides being persistently upbeat, it offers the pleasure of observing the delighted fascination of children attending. You can catch “The Sisters Fitz&Startz: A Case for the Classics” –– a new hour-long musical by Fitz&Startz Productions –– at two matinees this Saturday. The company’s highly fruitful collaboration, between co-founders and co-directors Rachel Lampert and Lesley Greene, began a decade ago. Their youth theater mixes all kinds of music into stories performed by adults, teens, and kids together, earning their slogan “theater for all ages.” This latest production, written and directed by Lampert, is flavored by the classics –– excerpts of Mozart and Vivaldi, Donizetti and Chopin, among others. The story, originating in Lampert’s own Brooklyn-based childhood piano lessons, features two elderly women who teach the high cultural arts of music, dance and song to neighborhood children. When some of the kids respectfully begin to question the traditional routines scheduled yet again for their seasonal concert, you have the stirrings of plot.
The show is hosted at the Kitchen Theatre, aptly on the set of its current production of “The Piano Teacher” –– a dated, drab living room. The elderly sisters are charmingly rendered by Kristin Sad (as Ashtabula) and Sylvia Yntema (Phelmena), the former self-absorbed, dreamy, melodramatic and the latter practical and thoughtful. Their musical regimen, honed over 50 years, is loving but unvarying.
Ashtabula in particular digs in her heels when one adventurous student proposes something new. The upstart, Eddie, is irresistibly played by Mike Cyr –– wrapped in his headphones, he’s constantly inventing lyrics of his own, making snarky quips, rebelling even as he sweetly cooperates. And size-wise, he’s the bull in the china shop –– one of the most comical elements of this show is watching actors in their twenties play pre-teen kids.
Rhonda (Niccole Bethany Onwuka) is the most dutiful student, eager for her solo in “The Spinning Song.” Benno Ressa’s amusing Jonathan is a bit out of it, and Nastasha Bratkovksi’s Adelaide is sensible and smart (and gloriously voiced). As Benjamin, Travis Knapp is teased for saying so little, but he’s helpfully playing the piano –– for rehearsals as well as for the students’ surprise concert for their teachers. Discovering scrapbooks of the sisters’ glory days of dance in the ’50s, they’re inspired to blend a tribute to their teachers with their own updates of the classics –– which of course includes some clever and comic rapping. (The children in the audience were instantly entranced.)
Both this final “concert” and their previous rehearsals offer high-spirited entertainment. But the storyline itself drags a little, perhaps because the older women seem to have equal or more stage time than the youth. And they’re portrayed (as indeed in the Kitchen’s “The Piano Teacher”) as respected but past-oriented and terribly out of touch. This stereotyping of age seems both unnecessary and inaccurate; consequently, the nostalgia of the two sisters is the least dynamic aspect of the show, for kids and adults alike.
I truly enjoyed “A Case for the Classics” –– but still miss the more kid-centric shows Fitz&Startz has previously produced.
“The Sisters Fitz&Startz: A Case for the Classics.” Book and lyrics by director Rachel Lampert; musical arrangements by Emily Goldman; costumes Hannah Kochman; wig/makeup by Nicholas Carbonara. At the Kitchen Theatre, 417 W. MLK/State St., Saturday, Nov. 3 at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tickets at 607-273-0403 or at the door.
Barbara Adams, a regional theatre and arts writer, teaches writing at Ithaca College.