OREM — The Untold Story of the Tortoise and the Hare is SCERA’s latest world premiere for young audiences. It is a musical that does not just retell one of Aesop’s fables, but the play also has upbeat songs (written by David Paul Smith), some endearing characters, and even a cardio workout at the beginning that helps kids get their wiggles out.
The classic tale gets a makeover from playwright Chase Ramsey so that the animals live in the town of Winnington. The Hare family has won the annual footrace 49 years in a row, and the clan’s hopes on a 50th win rest on Jackie Hare (played by Kelly Coombs). The only other racer is Frankie Tortoise (played by Kevin Bigler), whose family members come in last place every year but still enter because they encourage their children to try their best.
Of course, the tortoise wins, but not before teaching the children in the audience a lesson. No, not “slow and stead wins the race,” but the value of giving something important up to help someone else. It’s a nice twist on a very old tale.
The play starts with Shawn M. Mortensen leading the audience in an opening workout, which gives little kids plenty of chances to participate and be part of the show. Mortensen is charismatic, which carries over well when playing the role of the race announcer Leo Lion and the trainer Arnold Schwartzengstor.
Coombs has boundless energy, which is exactly what she needs to play the role of a quick rabbit in a way that can engage children. Her childlike voice and demeanor make her easy for children to relate to, especially as Jackie feels pressure from her parents (played by Garrett Smit and Heidi Spann). Coombs’s singing is also strong, and she gives the score punch and emotion, especially in “More Than That” and “Enjoy the Moment.” Bigler’s voice is not as strong as Coombs’s, and their duets invited uncomfortable comparisons between the two actors’ singing abilities. However, Bigler has more than enough boyish charm to succeed in the role, and I loved his sincere innocence in “When It Comes to Winning” and when Frankie talks about his feelings for Jackie.
One strength of this production was Mortensen’s set design, which included two superb unit set pieces that were exquisitely decorated as the two families’ homes. His tree trunk and rock served the outdoor scenes well and provided Smith and DeLayne Bluth Dayton (the production’s directors) with the ingredients to spice up “More Than That” and prevent it from becoming a bland ballad. Chase Elison‘s lighting designs for “Pump You Up” and the race scenes heightened the story’s excitement.
The only visual element that was lacking was Deborah Bowman’s costume designs, which had few elements that reminded the audience that the characters were animals. Because the tortoise characters had no shells, my 4-year-old son didn’t understand that they were tortoises. A simple backpack to serve as a shell could have corrected this problem.
Indeed, there were several aspects of the production that were hard for my son to understand, and I am forced to recommend this play to kids in early elementary grades. That being said, it was still an enjoyable 60-minute production for him. The direct sincerity of the production, coupled with its enthusiastic cast and positive message, make The Untold Story of the Tortoise and the Hare a worthy endeavor for SCERA and a great (and budget friendly) outing for young children.