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Debbie Gravitte, Daphne Rubin-Vega,
Keith Nobbs, and (rear) Robert Ari
in Free to Be...You and Me
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The ellipsis that Marlo Thomas and those who helped create Free to Be...You and Me placed in the title has always seemed curious. What is meant to be implied by those three dots? Since an ellipsis usually indicates a deletion, was there something cut? Or does it imply a pause, during which the title's speaker is trying to think what to say next? Who knows? Probably, it's no more than an affectation, but somehow that concluding "you and me" suggests a speaker settling for less than he or she started out to claim. You know, free to be...oh, well, just you and me.

Settling, of course, is not what Thomas and colleagues intended when the book, album, and 1972 television special incarnations of Free to Be... were unleashed and promoted far and wide. Famous as the tube's consciousness-unraised That Girl, Thomas really wanted to let children know they were free to be themselves. Daphne Rubin-Vega explains as much in the Drama Dept.'s stage adaptation of the 30-year-old property. Appearing briefly in the guise of Thomas, Rubin-Vega confides she'd been reading children's books to a niece and had grown angry at how they perpetuated gender stereotypes.

So what did Thomas do to purge her outrage? She and producing partner Carol Hart asked a number of writer-friends including Carol Hall, Peter Stone, Carl Reiner, Dan Greenburg, Sheldon Harnick, Mary Rodgers, Bruce Hart, and Herb Gardner to invent a series of songs and sketches that would elbow out the old male/female canards. What the Thomas gang didn't notice, or chose to ignore, was that Fred Rogers had already made many of the same points on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. More importantly, they didn't realize how thuddingly they had replaced one set of rigid views with another. But anyone in the Drama Dept. audience--and this includes children, likely as not--won't miss the hammering. Number after number reiterates the idea that assumptions like 'daddies work' and 'mommies stay home' are not necessarily true. An assaulted ticket-buyer is likely to want to shout "OK, already" at ditties and skits like the one where Rubin-Vega and Robert Ari play newborns trying to figure out what sex they are or the gloppy Rodgers and Hart (that's Mary and Bruce, not Richard and Lorenz) number "Girl Land," wherein the old taken-for-granteds about girliness are bid an ironic farewell.

Eventually, Thomas et al. become so insistent on squelching misguided aperçus that they fob off Sheldon Harnick's "Housework," in which it's stated categorically that adults hate to do chores and that anyone saying otherwise is wrong or lying. This came as a surprise to the fellow I took along, who said that he regards housework as a welcome chance to set aside his cares and set his mind to nothing more complicated than getting his surroundings in order. In Carol Hall's misspelled "It's Alright to Cry," the problem may be that at this late date, the urgent news is no longer urgent--it's a cliché. Alan Alda and disciples have been happily crying for years, as young viewers inured to television sitcoms are well aware.

That the Drama Dept. has resuscitated Free to Be...You and Me at a time when even the Sesame Street cadre is revising its education philosophy prompts the question: What were they thinking? And it's just as difficult to deduce what the show's writers were thinking. Given the quality of the contributions, it seems as if they wanted to lend a pal a hand and more or less agreed with her mission but weren't entirely inspired by it. None of them worked at his or her best, which is another way of saying that the normally clever and thoughtful Harnick, Hall, Stone, etc. came up with half-hearted, half-baked swipes at bettering children's self-esteem along the lines of (and no more sophisticated than) Fred Rogers's "I Like You As You Are" and "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

Free to Be... interactive: everybody sing!
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The piece that comes closest to being involving is Herb Gardner's "How I Crossed the Street for the Very First Time All By Myself." It's a nine-year-old's rambling school report on an act of misbehavior back when he was a five. For the first three or four minutes, the circuitous confession is quite funny--especially as performed by Keith Nobbs, who keeps scratching his left calf and throwing uncertain smiles across the footlights. Unfortunately, Gardner (in whose 1974 Thieves Thomas starred) didn't know when to stop, which isn't unusual for him.

Nobbs, Rubin-Vega, Ari, and Debbie Gravitte do what they can with the unyielding material and are bright and energetic about it. Nobbs, so good last season in Four--an altogether different type of show--sings light-heartedly. Gravitte gets to do a vamp version of Edward Kleban's "Let's Hear It For Babies" and, on ground familiar to her, she scores with those hoping to see something that approximates her Tony-winning rendition of Irving Berlin's "Mister Monotony." Rubin-Vega is far from Rent and The Rocky Horror Show here, but is a good sport. Ari has a likability about him, even when doubling on guitar and exhorting the audience to join in an evening-lengthening singalong to Shel Silverstein's "Helping." Musical director Sam Davis mans the onstage piano well. (The show, by the way, includes at least two numbers in addition to "Helping" during which printed lyrics are brought out to encourage communal singing. The Silverstein lyrics refer to certain kinds of unhelpful help as something "we all can do without." The same can be said of multiple singalongs.)

Dressed by Gregory A. Gale in 70's-like denim and tie-dye, the Free to Be... cast members often throw themselves into frugging motions, although no choreographer is listed in the program. My housework-loving friend insisted that the datedness of these elements was intentional; but why, I asked him, would anyone want to mount a show that not only sounds but looks old hat? At any rate, the '80s hip-hop hand jive that the actors employ on at least one occasion upends the "bow-to-the-70's" theory. Allen Moyer designed the set, which boasts brick walls painted a glossy black, a colorful show curtain, and a number of chairs and leatherette poofs.

Oscar Wilde once said of Charles Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop that "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing." Of Free to Be...You and Me, it might be said, "One must have a heart of stone to attend this show and not get the urge to write naughty parodies of it."

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