Populated by a hyperkinetic young cast with a raft of Broadway credits, this smart, droll new tuner by husband-and-wife team Laurence O’Keefe (“Bat Boy”) and Nell Benjamin (“Sarah, Plain and Tall”) is a useful addition to the otherwise limited canon of original shows aimed mainly at the tween and pre-tween set that’s not torturous for adults. There’s a bevy of cheery numbers, a plethora of witty staging ideas and (most important of all) a cool air of sophistication that yields enough hip sugar to persuade the target aud to swallow its moralistic message of appreciating one’s gifts and talents, even if at first they make you look like a geek to your peers.
The only palpable downside here is a common one when it comes to theatrical adaptation of kid-lit. Especially in these days of brand extension, children’s books tend to come in sets and series. Ergo, David Adler’s “Cam Jansen” (a girl with a photographic memory that requires her to say “click” out loud to get it into gear), is the star of an entire series of books, mostly driven by the heroine’s prowess as a juvenile gumshoe able to use her powers of memory to solve crimes. But the musical — pegged more as a one-off — needs to introduce us to the character in general and take us along on one of her mysteries. And it’s tough to do both at once.
At least for series novices, and for adults in general, “Cam Jansen” is thus far stronger in the first act, when it deals with Cam coming to terms with her gift and the price she has to pay with her peers, than it is in the second, when the show follows an uber-broad detective yarn involving the “Curse of the Emerald Elephant,” which would not have looked out of place on a vintage “Scooby-Doo” episode.
The really good stuff here involves Cam getting kicked out of the school play for saying “Click” in a crucial moment, or discovering the difference between true and fake friends in a novelty number sung by the show’s “Mean Girls”-type, played with witty nastiness by Farah Alvin. Those are the human travails of the show — and Kate Wetherhead has a delightfully vulnerable sensibility in the title role. It’s just less interesting when Cam becomes a kind of embryonic Hercule Poirot.
That said, “Cam Jansen” otherwise offers a fine old time that had most pint-sized viewers firmly hooked. The title ditty, “Jennifer Jansen,” lodges itself pleasantly in one’s skull. And there’s also a droll celebration of the powers of memory, entitled “Remember All You Can See.” One couldn’t reasonably ask more of the performers — the inventive Jamie Laverdiere plays an endless succession of fabulous comic types — or from Gordon Greenberg’s warm, witty direction.
The whole affair is timed just right at a whip-fast 90 minutes, intermission included. And since it can be done with a unit set and an ensemble cast of seven, this show should have a useful afterlife at children’s theaters across the country.