It’s not every children’s musical that teaches a thing or two about Vivaldi. But in “The Orphan Singer,” the latest tuner produced by 10-year-old company Making Books Sing, tykes are treated to some of the composer’s most famous operatic works, as well as a healthy dose of 18th century Venetian history.
The tale of a young girl who rises from poverty to become a star soprano, the show — adapted from Emily Arnold McCully’s novel by Barbara Zinn Krieger, who also provides English libretti for the music — is designed to take the intelligence of children very seriously. Even though the lesson about studying hard to achieve a dream is exceedingly straightforward, Krieger packages it with sophisticated pieces of information.
For adults, the interesting factoids may offer welcome distraction from the simplistic plot. As sunny Catarina (Alissa Hunnicutt) rises inevitably through the ranks of a Venetian music school run by Vivaldi (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend), it will be news to most auds that the maestro actually did supplement his income by teaching orphaned girls.
And though the child’s conflict with older rival and mentor Apollonia (Anne Ricci) is paint-by-number, their arguments at least are interrupted by performances of the composer’s work.
The opera-trained cast is well suited to the classical material, performing selections like the “Juditha Triumphans” oratorio with expressive energy. In fact, the lively singing often trumps the acting, which tends to toward stilted line readings in forced Italian accents.
More than anything, the performers are hopelessly proper, never letting feeling get in the way of articulation. Propriety also guides the design, from Nicholas Vaughan’s period costumes, which also drape the on-stage chamber musicians, to Brian H. Kim’s projections, which alternate images of snowfall with tasteful shots of Venice.
Considering that this show is designed to travel throughout Gotham’s boroughs, playing 500-seat auditoriums no less, there’s little surprise that polish has been prized over vivacity. What’s more, Making Books Sing is augmenting the production by sending teaching artists into local schools to lead workshops and classes. This means their work must necessarily be inoffensive, lest school boards and parents protest.
But whatever the reason for its earnest, wholesome tone, “The Orphan Singer” never quite feels alive. Perfectly agreeable, Catarina is a heroine without stakes, and her happiness is never in question. Even a subplot about her missing parents (Goodfriend and Ricci) exists only to assure us that the child won’t suffer the loneliness of orphanhood for long.
Devoid of uncertainty or threat, the story never gets injected with emotion, and so the production becomes a bit like school. It’s certainly good for you, but not necessarily fun.