Aesop's Dynamic Duo - the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's new family musical - focuses on several of the renowned storyteller's famous characters, and one of its first songs is entitled "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Bret Churchill plays The Boy, and the actor, with his usual exuberance and vigor, begins the number with: "I'm the Boy Who Cried Wolf / I'm the one who frightened the town / I told them the story / And, boy, it was gory / I told them the wolf ate / the Smith's Bassett hound."

That's a pretty witty stanza for a children's entertainment, yet it's matched by a later one: "I'm the Boy Who Cried Wolf / But I'm almost ashamed to relate it / I lied to the town / 'Til the wolf came around / And he took my poor sheep / And he ate it."

This kind of age-defying drollness - goofy enough to tickle the kids, sharp enough to amuse the adults - is emblematic of Aesop's Dynamic Duo, and the song actually mirrors the show's appeal; it pays tribute to Aesop's works, is involving for its target audience, and, for the rest of us, often reveals itself to be really smart. The show isn't exactly Into the Woods, but heaven knows it doesn't need to be - Aesop's Dynamic Duo, directed with flair by Michael Oberfield, is a more-than-acceptable kids' entertainment, and great fun for the grown-ups, too.

Written by Brad Hauskins, who collaborated on the lyrics with composer Linda Brinkerhoff, the show finds the City Mouse (Heather Michele Lawler) and the Country Mouse (Sunshine Woolison) seeking immortalization through the pen of Aesop (Don Hepner). The author recounts his tales while several legendary Aesop characters - the Tortoise (B.J. Scahill), the Hare (Erica Hartono), the Fox (Erin Churchill [nee Dickerson]), the Wolf (Tom Walljasper) - enact them for the starstruck rodents, which gives the musical's storyline an extra fillip. We are presented with both the fables themselves and satiric commentary on them, and Hauskins and Brinkerhoff, throughout the production, take full comic advantage of their clever setup. (The show's most entertaining dialogue finds the Fox and the Wolf arguing over which of them has appeared in the most Aesop fables.)

Many of the jokes here are both subtle and wise; there's a terrific running gag regarding the correct pronunciation of "Aesop," and the last word heard on-stage is "Hello," which, when you think about it, is pretty damned clever. But Hauskins doesn't shy away from broad humor, as when Aesop tells the Country Mouse that her story must have a moral.

Country Mouse: "What's a moral?"

Tortoise: "What's a moral?!?"

Country Mouse: "See? He don't know, either."

The gags in this one-act production never abate, and as they're tied to the fondness you have for the characters, they're never tiresome; even when the show isn't overtly funny, it's always endearing. And Brinkerhoff's score, well-directed by Sue Williams, is a spritely, tuneful one; the Broadway-baby razzmatazz of the Fox and Wolf duet "Stick with Us & You'll Be a Star" is particularly fine, and "The Tortoise & the Hare" is a frisky '50s do-wop number.

(An in-joke: Brad Hauskins played the Tortoise in Circa '21's 1995 production of The Tortoise & the Hare. I played the Hare. He won.)

Director Oberfield punctuates the script with sharp staging and true inspiration - the ingratiating Bret Churchill makes an appropriately flamboyant entrance before the Boy's big solo - and his cast could hardly be bettered. Lawler, with her beaming cluelessness, and Woolison, doing priceless Minnie Pearl shtick, are terrifically enjoyable; they make an adorably mismatched pair. Hepner is a boisterous, robust presence, and Hartono's lithe, kicky Hare is a perfect contrast to Scahill's sweetly dopey Tortoise. (Scahill has a slow-witted charm, like that hug-happy abominable snowman in Bugs Bunny cartoons.) Erin Churchill's saucy Fox could be auditioning for Adelaide in Guys & Dolls - her Noo Yawk cadences are deliciously underplayed - and Walljasper, uttering his dialogue with an insinuating Antonio Banderas purr, is a comically suave powerhouse. (Somehow, with only two syllables to do it, Walljasper even scores a laugh off his delivery of the word "alas.")

Aesop's Dynamic Duo is being performed on the same set currently being used for Circa '21's Cats, which gives the show an element of the spectacular that sometimes gets in the way of its more modest appeal. But it's a delightful playing area, and Greg Hiatt's costumes have a vibrant, fairy-tale boldness.

My only real complaint is that the quick tempo of several songs occasionally causes lyrics to get lost, especially when the performers are working their lower vocal registers; as good as the musical numbers are, you want to understand everything you hear. (I'm often annoyed by their usage, but body mics would have proven helpful.) In Aesop's Dynamic Duo, though, that's only a minor failing in a show that provides major pleasure.

For tickets to Aesop's Dynamic Duo, call (309)786-7733 extension 2.

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