Now, a musical – Kate Feiffer’s play bridges mom/daughter divide

Now, a musical – Kate Feiffer’s play bridges mom/daughter divide

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Collaborators Kate Feiffer, left, the author; Ryan Bauer-Walsh, the actor who plays Mr. Luckey and Officer Ortiz; and MJ Bruder-Munafo welcome New York crowds to the mid-town theater. — Photo courtesy of MJ Bruder Munafo

A children’s play by Oak Bluffs writer Kate Feiffer and Vineyard Playhouse artistic director M.J. Bruder-Munafo is enjoying a four-week run in the new midtown theater district of New York City. “My Mom Is Trying To Ruin My Life,” a musical starring professional actors — both kids and adults — will be performed for two more weekends at the WorkShop Theater Company’s Mainstage. During the first two weeks of the run, many of the performances sold out.

“My Mom Is Trying To Ruin My Life” started life as a picture book for young children, written by Ms. Feiffer and illustrated by Diane Goode. Since the book (Ms. Feiffer’s fourth of 11) was published in 2009 by Simon & Schuster, the story has metamorphosed from a book into a stage play into a musical. As the project has taken on a team of collaborators, it has gathered more and more characters and storylines, as well as half a dozen very catchy songs by the professional songwriting team of Paul Jacobs and Sarah Durkee, plus some wonderful choreography.

Although the book was written for young kids, in its current incarnation the musical may be enjoyed on different levels by audience members from tots to their parents and grandparents. The sellout crowd on opening weekend was primarily adults and teens, who laughed throughout.

Ms. Feiffer based “My Mom is Trying to Ruin My Life” on an incident in which she unintentionally embarrassed her daughter, Maddie, at school. The story’s theme will be recognizable to any child or teen. The book details the plight of a grade school girl, Emma, who is living through the pre-adolescent mortification of having a mother who is guilty of public displays of affection, overprotectiveness and a tendency to buddy up to her friends, as well as other capital offenses like insisting on healthy food and unfortunate wardrobe choices. In the lyrics of the musical’s title song “Her sneeze is deaf’ning. She dances weird. She talks to strangers in every store. She’s always nosy with all my friends. Why can’t she ever just be a bore.”

Of course, in the end Emma realizes that her mom (and dad) are just trying, in their own inept ways, to act on their love for her, and she eventually learns to appreciate her parents after she envisions a world without them.

Shortly after the book appeared, Ms. Feiffer recognized the dramatic potential of the material and approached Ms. Bruder-Munafo about adapting it into a kids’ play. “Out of all of my books, this one felt to me like it could move from page to stage seamlessly,” Ms. Feiffer said.

Ms. Bruder-Munafo has written some 50 children’s plays, many of them for three programs under the Playhouse’s umbrella — the 4th Grade Theater Project, the Summer Stars Theater Arts Camp, and the Fabulists. She co-adapted (with Elizabeth Wojtusik) the fairy tale “The Snow Queen” and Marc Brown’s book “Arthur’s Christmas” (music by Linda Berg) for the Vineyard Playhouse’s mainstage.

With “My Mom Is Trying To Ruin My Life,” she took the clever premise of Ms. Feiffer’s book and fleshed it out with multiple characters, lots of action, and plenty of humor.

The original treatment of the material was presented as a workshop production at the Playhouse in June 2010. “After that run we both sort of looked at each other and said, ‘This should be a musical,'” Ms. Bruder-Munafo recalled.

Luckily, at that time, Emmy-winning composer Paul Jacobs was involved as musical producer in another production at the Playhouse. When Ms. Feiffer and Ms. Bruder-Munafo approached him about writing the music for their play, he enthusiastically signed on to the project and brought his writing partner, Sarah Durkee, on board to write the lyrics.

The play itself has undergone some changes to accommodate the musical format. “Kate asked me if she could rewrite the book for the musical with me,” said Ms. Munafo, “We became writing partners.”

“It’s tricky,” she added, “There are four of us making up a creative team. It’s a very interesting process.”

Last summer, the musical version of the play was presented as a staged (and sung) reading at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. “We did it as a Monday Night Special, and it played to the biggest audience of the summer,” Ms. Bruder-Munafo said. That production starred local actors Shelagh Hackett, Paul Munafo, and Katie Morse as Emma.

Last fall Mr. Jacobs brought the musical to the attention of the WorkShop Theater Company, which selected it as the second show of a new initiative to bring children’s theater to the 20-year-old organization. The company has a long history of successful enterprises. Among the works they have helped develop are several nationally produced, critically acclaimed plays and the original material from which the movie “Finding Neverland” was adapted.

“My Mom…” features 15 characters, half a dozen songs, and fun choreography by Danyelle Demchock . The hook-riddled tunes run from pop to rock to Broadway ballad and feature some very clever lyrics. Although the songs’ themes — tyrannical fathers and the dread of junior high school — will appeal to kids, many of the lyrics will surely draw laughs from adults. In the rock-flavored “Middle School Jungle,” the kids sing, “This place cuts you down to size/ Life was Dr. Seuss, Elmo, Mother Goose/ Now it’s like Lord of the Flies.”

The opening song “M-O-M” gets the show off to a fun, rollicking start. Emma and her mother extoll the multitasking nature of the modern mother. “She’s the one that asks directions/ And diagnoses ear infections/ Yeah, flip it over and it’s wow/I bet your mom is out there braggin’ boutcha now.”

We’re then introduced to a gang of little girls who mimic typical new mothers boasting about their baby dolls’ comparative growth percentiles and precocious speaking abilities. The show pokes fun at adult stereotypes, including power drunk cops and supermoms, and features several engaging characters.

The musical’s fast pace and a good dose of silliness will keep kids engaged and adults smiling. The character of Emma’s mom (played by Kayla King) is a clueless bundle of energy who steals the show. Emma, played by the remarkably gifted Lauren Weintraub, is equal parts adventurous little girl and cynical observer of adult behavior. The rest of the cast of mainly kids is rife with talent — both acting and singing — and the hour-long production is polished, professional, and highly entertaining from start to finish.

“My Mom Is Trying To Ruin My Life,” directed by Debbi Katz at the WorkShop Theater Company, 312 West 36th Street, NYC. Upcoming matinées take place on Saturday, March 2, Sunday, March 3, Saturday, March 9, and Sunday, March 10. Tickets are $18; $15 for students and seniors. Visit workshoptheater.org for more information.