PETE THE CAT: A Fine Feline

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Summertime, and the livin’ is easy — unless you have kids.

How does a parent entertain the young ‘uns until summer vacation mercifully ends and school blessedly resumes?

We can’t offer much help for moms and dads whose children are past third grade. What’s more, this solution is only 50 minutes long and good through August 18th. But the second-best news of all is that there’s a musical for you and your kids that is – yes! – absolutely free of charge, thanks to Theatreworks USA, one of the premier companies for kid playgoers.

The best news is that, despite a few missteps, PETE THE CAT is a fun-packed children’s musical that will also give parents more than a few laughs. However, they should be prepared to hear from their kid(s) an occasional “What’s funny?” and “I don’t get it!” That must be expected when most of a Mona Lisa is brought on stage.

“Most of?” you’re wondering. Don’t ask; find out yourself by getting to the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street.

Sarah Hammond’s libretto, adapted from Kimberly and James Dean’s series of popular children’s books, features Pete, who’s more than just a generic cat. He’s a cat in the coolest sense of the word, for he’s the guitarist and frontman for a rock group. (Able director Dan Knechtges wittily has him mime a microphone-on-a-cord by using his tail.)

After a number, the look Pete’s two musicians give him causes him to sense he’s in trouble. He turns to the audience and blatantly asks “Is the cat catcher right behind me?” The kids in the audience are game to shout out “Yes!”

You see, staying out late past bedtime – which a rock musician must do – is verboten. Here’s a situation to which this target audience can easily relate.

So Pete’s grounded. In the cat community, that means being banished to live with a family for a whole week. They’re the Biddles, a foursome who apparently aren’t members of that la-de-da Philadelphia family but just plain folks. Dad and son Jimmy want no part of a cat, but Mom and daughter Olive do.

(You’ve lived long enough to know who’s going to win this fight.)

So Pete, who must do his time at their Maple Street home, offers his sanguine philosophy: “Life takes courage.” That may be a bit heady for kids still in the throes of a so-called carefree childhood, but perhaps frankly conveying the message early in life will actually do them a favor.

Then the Biddles learn that Olive is allergic to cats. The girl doesn’t want to get a shot – a plot twist that couldn’t have pleased parents who have needle-phobic children. They’ve incessantly told them a little shot is nothing of which to be afraid – and now this.

Because the issue of Olive’s possible puncture is immediately dropped, you’d think that the Biddles would farm out Pete to someone’s else house. Instead, they reach the strange solution to simply relegate Pete to Jimmy’s room.

“Mi casa es su casa,” Jimmy tells Pete, perhaps in a nod to Spanish-language audiences. And the two do bond, as Pete gives another tenet of his philosophy: “Never say no to a hug.”

Some parents must have winced at that line. They’ve undoubtedly already told their children not to accept a hug from adult strangers. However, the show does offer better advice when stressing that teeth brushing before bedtime is a superb idea.

Then Pete tells Jimmy “Life is an adventure! I’m a rogue cat!” Thus he keeps Jimmy up too late and the kid isn’t prepared for his next day’s test. He certainly won’t be convinced as the teacher sings in song “School is good for everyone!” (Sam Tedaldi, perhaps in fear that someone wouldn’t swallow that one, doesn’t sing the line with a straight face.)

Pete tries to help by suggesting to the teacher that she instead have the kids paint. She does and Pete immediately starts in. “I don’t have a brush, but I do have a tail,” he proclaims before suggesting to other brush-deprived tailless kids that they use their fingernails. That solution may make parents moan at the thought of the dozens of arduous minutes they’ll spend scrubbing that sticky stuff out from under their kids’ nails.

Jimmy isn’t great at art, so he copies another student’s painting. (That does convey the worthy moral that kids must do their own work.) Jimmy is now disgraced and displaces his hostility to Pete for suggesting art class.

(No, the kids in the audience should be taught that everyone must own up to his own mistake.)

Jimmy is of course worried that his parents will be infuriated, but instead they sing “Even when you mess up, you got Mom and Dad.” That’s nice, but lyricist Hammond should have made room for the parents to say “But you really shouldn’t copy anyone’s work.”

The words that Hammond incessantly repeats are “A VW bus” to the point where one might assume that Volkswagen has paid for product placement. The song occurs when Pete drives (!) Jimmy to a location where he can be inspired to create his own distinct work.

“It’s got to be the best and most beautiful painting in the world,” Jimmy insists – in the way that kids set the bar unrealistically high for themselves. Pete instead is glad when Jimmy instead paints “something you love.” By show’s end, Pete considers himself part of the Biddles and settles for settling down.

Before the show, indefatigable and invaluable Theatreworks USA artistic director Barbara Pasternack told the crowd that she had asked composer Will Aronson to write in a ‘60s style.

Hmmm, wasn’t that turbulent decade full of discordant protest music? Not entirely; many happy-go-lucky bubble-gumish melodies emerged during the era. That’s what Aronson went for and has utterly succeeded. His terrific music will get at least five of your toes tapping.

None of the five actors probably spent childhoods proclaiming to everyone “When I grow up, I want to act in children’s theater!” Nevertheless, they’re game, give their all and emerge as extraordinarily talented and winning (even if in playing kids they seem old enough to have voted in the Obama-McCain election).

They incessantly double, triple and quadruple. Another “Hmmm” here, for does this age-group understand that when an actor exits and returns in a wildly different costume that he’s an entirely different character?

Perhaps the kids do. Pasternack’s introduction also included the information that children as young as 19 months have attended Theatreworks USA shows. So even if your sons and daughters are younger than SCHOOL OF ROCK, don’t be afraid to bring them to the Lortel for their free show. At the curtain calls, even the youngest will be clapping in rhythm as the audience did last Tuesday. Is there any better indication of a show that’s a hit?