A good idea may take time to percolate. When some years ago, playwright Sandy Eskin suggested to Adventure Theatre-MTC’s artistic director Michael J. Bobbitt to turn the Caldecott Honor children’s picture book “Blueberries for Sal” into a musical, Bobbitt admitted his interest was “limited.”
“I didn’t know it,” he said of the book.
“Blueberries for Sal” was one of Eskin’s favorites when she was a kid, and she read it to her own children.
After she and Bobbitt enjoyed a successful and fun collaboration on “Jumanji” – a classic fantasy book that won the National Book Award – she mentioned “Blueberries for Sal” again.
This time Bobbitt bought it.
“When I read the book, I was charmed, and after researching it, I was impressed by its popularity,” he said. “I was also very excited about working on a Robert McCloskey piece and finding a musical in this world.”
The result of Eskin and Bobbitt’s playwriting collaboration is a world premiere co-commission with New York City’s Children’s Theatre.
Of the world premiere, Bobbitt said, “It’s important to give voice to new writers, expose our patrons to contributions to the canon of children’s theater, and present work that appeals to the challenges that children face today.”
The show’s basic plot concerns two sets of mothers and daughters – one human, one bear – who go out for a day of berry picking, and, along the way, learn a lot about good parenting and being fearless. The two daughters, for a time, also lose their mothers.
Between writing, rewriting, inviting actors in for a workshop, auditions, rehearsals and production meetings, and adding designers, pulling together the musical took about a year and a half.
Perhaps that was serendipitous, because the musical is opening during the 70th anniversary of the publication of “Blueberries for Sal.”
Music and lyrics are by William Yanesh. He had directed several Adventure Theatre productions and done new arrangements and orchestrations for older shows. Yanesh also composed the score to “Caps for Sale,” which transferred to The New Victory Theatre and toured the country.
The musical fits into the theater season’s theme, about young ones, mostly bears and kids, “experiencing adventures and learning to face them,” said Bobbitt.
In addition to this production, Adventure Theatre this season is producing “Fancy Nancy’s Splendiferous Christmas,” Huckleberry Finn’s “Big River” – a Theatre for Young Audiences adaptation of Broadway’s “Big River” – “Winnie the Pooh,” and “Cat in the Hat.”
“I’d like to think that the play ‘Blueberries for Sal’ fills out (and in) the original book and provides greater detail about the characters and the relationships – with a lot of humor,” Eskin said.
When we meet them at the beginning of the story, she added, “Little Sal is very precocious and inquisitive, while her mother is always frazzled and not sure how to ‘handle’ her. By contrast, Little Bear is cautious and neurotic, and her mother follows the philosophy of ‘tough love’ but it’s not really working. Their day on Blueberry Hill teaches them each some valuable lessons.”
The cast consists of four actors, who play the two pairs of mothers and daughters, as well as other characters, such as birds and clouds.
Jess Jung is directing.
Adventure Theatre expects an enthusiastic reaction from audiences to the musical.
“Based on the reaction from people when I tell them about the play, it is clear people have a warm place in their hearts for this beloved picture book,” said Eskin.
The theaters recommend “Blueberries for Sal” for all ages. The musical runs Sept. 21-Oct. 21, at Adventure Theatre- MTC in Glen Echo Park, at 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. For more information, call 301-634-2270 or visit: www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org.