Frankly, I was surprised to see so many boys in attendance at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Tuesday performance of Fancy Nancy: The Musical. Based on Jane O'Connor's book Fancy Nancy & the Mermaid Ballet, the play would, I thought, appeal more obviously to girls, and prior to the opening of the (proverbial) curtain, I expected the lads populating my seat section to be disappointed. Fortunately, though, there's plenty of content here that appeals to both girls and boys, and judging by the young males' positive reactions, they were delighted by the show - as was I.
Fancy Nancy: The Musical centers on a dance recital featuring Nancy and her four closest friends, as well as several never-seen classmates. That's not a description that has anything "boyish" about it, but three of the main character's pals - Aaron Lord's charmingly agreeable Lionel and the tomboyish, dressed-alike twins Rhonda and Wanda (Kirsten Sindelar in pigtails and Morgan Griffin in a ponytail) - supply the story's more masculine elements. For the girls, there's Nancy, portrayed by Kaitlyn Casanova in a lovely performance that includes an always-sunny disposition and a sense of personal pride without condescension. There's also Nancy's best friend Bree, who, in Sara Tubbs' amusing and delightful depiction, shares Nancy's bright-eyed outlook on life.
Director/choreographer Andrea Moore's staging of the musical, composed by Danny Abosch and Susan DiLallo (who also wrote the script), maintains a friendliness to it that's devoid of any hints of darkness. The story's conflict involves an ocean-themed dance recital in which, everyone assumes, Nancy and Bree will be cast as the two lead mermaids - though everyone also assumes, incorrectly, that there are two mermaids. So it comes as quite a shock when there's only one mermaid in the recital, and neither girl gets the role.
Instead, Bree is cast as an oyster and Nancy a tree, which the latter girl, in true Fancy Nancy style, says is "ordinary. That's a fancy word for 'there are a lot of them.'" Still, after a bicycle accident eventually lands Bree the leading role, Moore and her cast avoid any kind of somber tone even when Nancy tells Bree she's happy for her yet struggles with knowingly lying to Bree, and being disappointed for not getting the part herself. (Somberness is also avoided when actor Deborah Kennedy, as Nancy's mother, performs the musical's touching ballad "You'll Always Be My Star," in which she beautifully sings of her pride in Nancy no matter what.)
As the story unfolds, we're treated to several snappy songs with quite a few clever lyrics. Lionel plays a shark in the recital and performs a spunky hip-hop dance while rapping "Fish gotta swim and sharks gotta bite, so you better watch out for these pearly whites." The twins get their chance to shine in "On My Team," a rousing ditty that has Rhonda and Wanda one-upping each other with their sports achievements. Meanwhile, the Caribbean-themed "What I'll Be," in which the kids imagine what roles they'll play in the dance recital, includes the brilliant lyric "I can be a coral and sing in harmony." That was one of several times I reacted to Fancy Nancy with loud laughter, which led to many nearby kids turning their heads to stare at me in (I hope) amusement.
I also admire Lord's decision to play the only male friend in the bunch as confused by the girls' interests, rather than annoyed by them. By doing so, there's almost a subliminal message regarding friendship in his portrayal, with Lionel choosing to see his friends in the most positive light regardless of their differences. When the friends receive word about the dance recital, the girls shriek with glee while Lord raises his eyebrows and steps away with a look of bewilderment, but one without an ounce of disdain. Because the girls are his friends, Lionel harbors no resentment toward them, and Lord, in this and other moments, is a subsequent delight to watch.
Still, it's Nancy, closely orbited by Bree, who is the show's focal point, with the two sharing a charming duet, "You'll Always Feel Much Better After Tea," while sipping from teacups and wearing feathered boas and feather- and bow-adorned hats. (Their outfits here are among designer Gregory Hiatt's most cheerful ensembles.) And while Circa '21's Fancy Nancy: The Musical may be about childhood friendship, the lesson Nancy learns in the end is one that holds true for viewers of any age, girls and boys alike.
Fancy Nancy: The Musical runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through May 15, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2, or visiting Circa21.com.