“Freckleface Strawberry” is an utterly charming social fable with a winning message and a fun, loping sense of goofiness that broadly engages its young audience while gently imparting its message of sensitivity and tolerance.
I not only highly recommend it to parents and their children but also, and perhaps even more so, recommend it to schools looking at potential field trip fodder. The message imparted by “Freckleface” is one which students should take in, and the way it’s presented will entertain them while they’re experiencing it.
“Freckleface” is based on the best-selling children’s book by Julianne Moore. Yes, THAT Julianne Moore, the Oscar-winning actress. And yes, THAT Julianne Moore, who was obviously ridiculed at a young age for the pale skin, ginger features and geography of freckles that would make her a thinking man’s sex symbol decades down the line.
At times it’s bracingly revelatory, reading as if it’s been ripped from her grade school journal. But that fidelity to feeling serves it incredibly well, as it imparts a very human connection in a show which counterbalances its social weight with plenty of broad, goofball humor.
The show rockets in by introducing its screwball group of grade school compatriots, the titular ginger Strawberry (Mariah Thornton), jock Danny (Don Denton), class clown Harry (Janos Horvath), brain Jake (Brad Hauskins), dancer Ballet Girl (Danielle Barnes) – you know you’re being painted as fairly one-dimensional when your character doesn’t even have a name, merely a tag based on a character trait – who is the first to befriend Strawberry, albeit sub rosa, and popular blonde girl Emily (Dani Westhead). They’re all friends in that loosely aligned early grade school way, just starting to make the shift towards social strata, just starting to define each other on their differences, and just starting to make those differences ripe for ridicule to hide their own insecurities.
And that’s one of the terrific qualities of “Freckleface Strawberry” – the fact that those insecurities are all on display throughout the show. “Freckleface” follows a fairly free-range plot, galloping about in a series of vignettes about each of the students, ostensibly orbiting around the title character, but offering a slice of life of each, showing how they all long for friendship, love and acceptance, but likewise displaying how each of them wishes they could be like the other, thinking their differences are their downfall. It’s surprisingly multi-layered and interesting, while not being preachy, and remaining entertaining, which is quite an accomplishment.
It would’ve been much easier and lazier for writer Gary Kupper to make the artsy misfits the heroes and the popular kids the villains. Much easier, much lazier, and much less interesting. Instead, Kupper imbues each of his characters, rightfully, as utilizing their own masks and bravado to hide their own insecurities and uncertainties, and picking at each other’s differences to deflect any notice of their own perceived deficiencies. It sounds fairly basic, but given the typically one-dimensional nature of many of these shows, it’s actually quite refreshing and fantastic in its own way.
This is one of the many wonderfully humanistic treats presented in “Freckleface,” a show of surprising and welcome depth amidst its predictably pleasing array of butt and fart jokes. And I say that not in a degrading way, but rather in a pragmatic one. I’m the father of a four-year-old, Jackson, who I brought to the show. And there’s little of greater entertainment value to children of and around that age than the humor of bodily functions. If it involves a butt or any of said posterior’s functions, it’s comedy gold to the pre-school and early school set. And every forearm fart or poop joke uttered by the cast of “Freckleface” elicited a trilling wave of cheers from the (literally) juvenile throng. Is it goofy, dumb humor? Yes it is. But as a parent of one of the children laughing, I can tell you that there are few sounds as beautiful as that of the laughter of your own child, so to me, every little potty joke they uttered was its own little magic.
The cast, and director Kimberly Furness, seem to understand this, and play along that fine line between clever and stupid, where the wild laughs lurk.
Each of the cast members shows a willing ebullience in their child-like demeanor and a loose willingness to go along for the ride to bring laughs to the crowd. Mariah Thornton is sympathetic as Strawberry. Don Denton brings nice nuance to Danny the insecure jock. Janos Horvath is fantastic as the gleefully goofy Harry. Brad Hauskins is nicely nerdy as Jake. Danielle Barnes straddles the line between icy and accessible as Ballet Girl. Tracy Pelzer-Timm is friendly and fun as Jane. And Dani Westhead is bubbly and brash as Emily.
As a parent, as a writer and as a critic, I really enjoyed “Freckleface.” But more importantly, so did my four-year-old, and so did the various children who gave it a standing ovation at show’s end. It’s one of those rare shows that kids and parents will both enjoy, for different reasons, perhaps, but, maybe, also for some of the same reasons as well. The primary reason being that it’s just that good.
Through Dec. 29
Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island, IL
(309) 786-7733, ext. 2 for tickets