Taylor Caldwell and company in a number from Encores! Really Rosie, directed by Leigh Silverman, at New York City Center.
Taylor Caldwell and company in a number from the Encores! Off-Center production of Really Rosie, directed by Leigh Silverman, at New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

When the curtain rises on the Encores! Off-Center production of Really Rosie, the wave of nostalgia hits you with the opening song. The bouncy major chords of the title number, played on a grand piano, take '70s and '80s babies back to their childhoods when this weird and delightful stage musical originally started as a half-hour animated television special for CBS.

The beloved children's book author Maurice Sendak wanted to set his Nutshell Library books to music. Carole King, who had already become a music legend after the 1971 release of Tapestry, served as the composer. The television special premiered in 1975 and featured all of the well-known hallmarks of their work: a sweet folk-rock score accompanying lightly faded, jagged-edge cartoons that were geared at kids but infused with an adult sensibility. The pair spun the television special into an album, which peaked at the 20th spot on the Billboard 200, and a musical, which premiered off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre in 1980 and ran for more than 200 performances.

King and Sendak's influences are deeply felt in this brief New York City Center revival, which is directed with the perfect anarchic feel by Leigh Silverman and performed by a talented group of teens and preteens who not only understand the dry sensibility of Sendak's text, but also know how to deliver it. Children will be wide-eyed watching their peers on stage, while parents will giggle at the grown-up humor while shedding wistful tears as they fondly recall their own time spent watching and listening to these classic songs.

The main character is Rosie (Taylor Caldwell, who has star written all over her), a kid with a huge imagination. To pass her days on Brooklyn's Avenue P, Rosie envisions herself as the next big celebrity. She enlists her eclectic group of friends to prepare for the arrival of a major movie producer who will send them all to the West Coast with a one-way ticket. But first, they need to audition.

All of Rosie's friends have his or her big moment, with songs inspired by Sendak's "Nutshell" books. Anthony Rosenthal (Falsettos) is deliciously twisted as the death-obsessed Johnny, of "One Was Johnny" fame. Eduardo Hernandez (one of the terrific dancing children in On Your Feet!) cuts a mean rug as Pierre, a boy whose famously apathetic expression of "I don't care" comes back to bite him, literally, when he's eaten by a lion. Ruth Righi makes a huge and hilarious impression with her inspired comic turn as Rosie's Dracula-obsessed friend Kathy. And in "Alligators All Around," Kenneth Cabral, as Alligator, shows off his astonishing gift for dance in a fabulous tap-off between him and choreographer Ayodele Casel.

The "Alligators All Around" tap-off serves as one of the 70-minute production's major highlights. Casel's dance numbers are impressive in their complexity, playing to the strengths of each individual cast member. Like watching real children as they fool around, not one person on stage is doing the exact same move, and it makes for a viewing experience that's striking in its diversity. Carmel Dean, who co-musical directs with Mary-Mitchell Campbell, leads a five-member band that's so good it almost sounds like they're playing with Carole King herself.

While the look of the show could be a little more Sendak-ian in nature, Silverman's design team pays loving homage to the grittiness of the cartoon. Donyale Werle's set includes individual front stoops for each child; the grit is broken up by fluffy, whimsical clouds that, when lit with fantastical colors by Mark Barton, resemble cotton candy. Costume designer Clint Ramos helps to highlight the personalities of each character, from Kathy's neon teal-colored tights to Alligator's alligator hoodie.

This sole collaboration between Carole King and Maurice Sendak has a raw simplicity to it you would only find in the 1970s ("I can sing 'Tea for Two and Two for Tea'/I can act 'To Be or Not to Be'/I can tap across the Tappan Zee" is a particularly brilliant lyric even by today's more complex standards), while King's music has the same melodic drive and feel as her biggest hits. When creating this musical, the pair was astute in what they were delivering to their young audience: When children play, they play-act at being adults. Sendak and King don't underestimate the ability of young viewers to absorb the sophisticated humor of the piece while still playing entirely in the world of a child's imagination.

After performing the big finale, the well-known "Chicken Soup With Rice," the cast introduces an audio recording of Sendak himself talking about the beauty and innocence of youth. In a world where that kind of innocence is harder and harder to come by with each passing day, it is lovely to see a reminder of those halcyon days of childhood. Thanks to this production of Really Rosie, we can bring a little bit of that back to a new generation of children.