‘Cat Kid Comic Club’ Review: Tiny, Big Imaginations

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‘Cat Kid Comic Club’ Review: Tiny, Big Imaginations

“Oppenheimer” isn’t the summer’s only work of popular culture in which atomic bombs detonate. The other such production, however, draws laughter and aims for an audience that probably worries more about long division than about nuclear fission.

That show is TheaterWorksUSA’s “Cat Kid Comic Club: The Musical,” which opened on Sunday at the Lucille Lortel Theater. This family-oriented romp, set in a swamp “right this minute,” features obstreperous tadpoles, a bionic butterflyfish and a sweet-natured feline hero — all characters that spring from the imagination of Dav Pilkey, the delightfully subversive author of such best-selling children’s graphic-novel series as Captain Underpants and Dog Man. Now the writer and lyricist Kevin Del Aguila, who’s also an actor in “Some Like It Hot,” and the composer Brad Alexander, who in 2019 winningly adapted the Dog Man books for TheaterWorksUSA, have returned to bring Pilkey’s Cat Kid Comic Club series to the stage.

The new production begins as the tadpoles, who have been endowed with telekinetic powers, are destroying civilization, but soon morphs into a humorous tale of redemption. Cat Kid (Sonia Roman), a feline friend to all the swamp’s residents, has an antidote to the evil force controlling the polliwogs, and Flippy the fish (Jamie LaVerdiere) adopts them. But when they still prove to be disciplinary challenges, Cat Kid starts the club in the musical’s title, hoping that teaching the tiny frogs to create comics will help tame their behavior.

Drawing comics certainly helped Pilkey, who has written about his early attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. But just as his irreverent novels dismay some adults, the tadpoles produce comics — all acted out hilariously onstage — that horrify their adoptive father.

Curly (Brian Owen) delivers one in which a failed baby superhero inadvertently causes nukes to explode, ending the world. And Poppy (L.R. Davidson) draws “The Cute, Little, Fluffy Cloud of Death,” whose lonely, lisping title character finds friendship with a ghost girl and her skeleton dog. (AchesonWalsh Studios created the ingenious puppets that augment the nimble human cast; Cameron Anderson designed the inventive set.)

Now, parents who think gallows humor is inappropriate for the young may not buy tickets to “Cat Kid.” But they would be depriving their children of not only the wit of the musical’s book and the inventiveness of its numbers — they range from Bon Jovi-esque power ballads to bluegrass to rap — but also of its serious import.

In addition to urging its audience to be fearlessly imaginative, the show promotes equity for girls in a subplot involving the combative tadpole Naomi (Markia Nicole Smith) and her smug brother, Melvin (Dan Rosales). The action reveals that Naomi’s prickliness derives partly from having to work harder for the rewards that boys like Melvin take for granted.

But the musical, deftly directed and choreographed by Marlo Hunter, also endorses a more global inclusiveness. At one point, Cat Kid announces a lesson on perspective, which led a little boy at the performance I attended to whisper, “What’s perspective?”

The show answers by demonstrating how the concept plays a role in society as well as in art. At a time when some communities are banning certain children’s books — Pilkey’s included — “Cat Kid” emphasizes the value of learning about diverse points of view and encouraging creativity in young people. And if what they create makes their parents uncomfortable? It’s not the end of the world.

Cat Kid Comic Club
Through Aug. 27 at the Lucille Lortel Theater, Manhattan; twusa.org. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.

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