Free to Be…You and Me, Laboratory Theatre, at the Performance Loft, Second Unitarian Church of Chicago. The sensibility of this show, conceived by actress Marlo Thomas and friends including Mel Brooks and Whoopi Goldberg, is so refreshing to those parched by right-wing “family values” that even a weak production would be welcome–and this is a strong one. Where else today can children–or adults, for that matter–see an encounter with welfare portrayed sympathetically instead of with judgmental horror, or a child with no father treated not as a victim but as someone whose ability to imagine what he’s missing will make him a better parent himself?

Director Michele Gerard Good and musical collaborators Reyna Larson and Scott Stevenson preserve the show’s early-70s feel without treating it as a period piece. The second act bogs down a bit in text, but the singing, dancing, clowning first act is pretty much perfect. Standouts in the strong cast include Mariam Plotkin in roles ranging from the child in the welfare office to the pitcher who refuses to be excluded from the boys’ game; Kristofer Simmons in the recurring role of Boy, slowly figuring out that he’s not a girl but can still be a cocktail waitress; and Good herself in various roles (she’s also responsible for the terrific uncredited choreography). One caution: this show may be a bit long for five- or six-year-olds, the youngest of the kids to whom it’s addressed.

–Kelly Kleiman