National Children’s Repertory Theatre

at Halsted Theatre Centre

Let’s see: we learned that male and female babies are more similar than they are different, that it’s all right for boys to cry and play with dolls, that girls who use their femininity to take advantage of others come to bad ends, that boys can’t “win” girls, and that friends can quarrel and still be friends. Not bad for a show only an hour long with lots of Broadway-style musical numbers–newborn babies tap-dancing in white sequined top hats is about as Broadway as you can get.

When it was first published in 1974, Free to Be . . . You and Me was lauded for its freshness and intelligence; it revolutionized juvenile literature. In the foreword to the original edition, Marlo Thomas wrote about how she was looking for books to read to her young niece: “I found shelf after shelf of books that told boys and girls who they . . . ought to be, but seldom who they could be. I wanted a book to celebrate all the possibilities.” Thomas enlisted the help of her friends and colleagues in order to create such a book. The result was a “children’s book” containing works by Carl Reiner, Judith Viorst, Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, Sheldon Harnick, and many other respected “adult” authors.

Free to Be . . . You and Me was revolutionary not only in its high standards, however. Feminist organizations hailed the book for its unprejudiced treatment of male-female relationships. For example: included in the book (and in the play) is the familiar fable of the king who proclaims that the winner of a footrace will marry his daughter. This time, however, the princess herself runs in the race, outdistancing all suitors but one–a prince who has no intention of taking an unwilling bride. He seeks only to become acquainted with this independent-minded princess. Once they tie for the finish, and discover that they have the same sentiments on matrimonial restrictions, they become friends, eventually parting to seek their separate fortunes. The story concludes, “Perhaps some day they will be married, and perhaps they will not. In any case, they are friends. And it is certain that they are both living happily ever after.”

This flexible attitude is more common nowadays than in 1974 (in some circles, anyway). So a contemporary interpretation has to be more than propaganda. Good children’s theater must also be good theater–a precept frequently forgotten by many practitioners of the art aimed at juveniles but meticulously observed by Douglas Love and Regina Safran, whose stage adaptation of the book was approved, over 14 others, by Thomas herself.

No need to worry, in other words–Love and Safran have created one of the biggest little shows in town, and perhaps one of the most entertaining for adults as well as children. Stringing together several pieces from the book into one extended narrative, Free to Be . . . You and Me takes us through the childhoods of Janet (Judy Kaplan) and William (Darius De Haas), who meet as babies in the hospital. There William declares that his dainty feet and Janet’s bald head prove beyond a doubt that he is a girl and she is a boy. Eventually, the nurse comes to change their diapers and they learn the truth, but both agree that it needn’t affect their relationship. Sings Janet: “I might be pretty / You might grow tall / But we don’t have to change at all.”

When they’re older, William and Janet are confronted with different problems. William acquires a doll, for example–a gift from his grandmother, who explains to his frowning father that future fathers need child-care practice, too. William and Janet also acquire two friends. The macho Richard (David Bedella) comes to learn that males are permitted to express emotions: “The feelings may be strange . . . but feelings are such real things.” The hyperfeminine Victoria (Leslie Holland) learns her lesson through the tale (written by Shel Silverstein) of a vain little girl who uses “Ladies first!” to get her own way and ends up being the first course in a tigers’ banquet. The audience is called upon to play the tigers and vote on who gets eaten. (Too bad a similar vote couldn’t have been taken on Victoria’s jokes, which must have been fresh to only the smallest babes in arms.) By the end of the play, all four children have learned something that will help them be better adults–and may have taught us something, too.

Directors Gretta Assaly and Douglas Love have staged a nimble, fast-paced show that held the attention of all but the youngest audience members. The spoken duet, “The Pain/The Great One,” is especially innovative: it points up the parallels between Richard’s and Victoria’s complaints about siblings by placing them on opposite ends of a seesaw. Set designer Miriam S. Hoffman and technical director John Imburgia have assembled a dazzling display of revolving panels that can change the locale in the twinkling of an eye. Jon Welstead’s musical arrangements update the early-70s songs to give them a nice, contemporary Top 40 feel.

Times have changed, but in our increasingly conservative age, the notion that males and females can actually be friends is still rather revolutionary. Many unreconstructed segments of our society are still fighting the battle of the sexes, and Free to Be . . . You and Me opens up the possibility of a peaceful coexistence to children while reminding adults of that same possibility.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.