Looking for a new, fun and entertaining way to spend the afternoon in a historic setting with the kids this holiday season? Introducing a brand new musical for the first time anywhere, The Kennedy Center presents the world premiere production of The Gift of Nothing, which opened last Saturday in the Family Theater, an inviting 324-seat facility that allows for more audience space and movement.
Commissioned by The Kennedy Center, The Gift of Nothing is based on the New York Times best-selling book by Patrick McDonnell, creator of the 20-year-old daily comic strip Mutts (praised by Peanuts creator Charles Schultz as “one of the best comic strips of all time.”). The story, featuring the Mutts characters, has been innovatively adapted for the stage by McDonnell, Aaron Posner, and Erin Weaver, with catchy music and lyrics by Andy Mitton.
Playful and reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ styling, the resplendent stage immediately draws the audience in with its clean, all-white, simple décor that appears to be something like cut outs from the pages of a book, displaying the characters’ neighborhood and homes. Whimsically decked and designed by Luciana Stecconi, the quaint production opens with Earl the dog (inspired by McDonnell’s own longtime Jack Russell terrier, and energetically portrayed in the show by Maggie Donnelly) panting and sliding about the stage, tail-wagging blissfully. The audience, a well-balanced mix of little ones paired with their accompanying adults, laughs and cheers excitedly. Mooch the cat (Nickolas Vaughan), lounging and lolling, really moves — sparked out of his initial indifference by a teasing “Little Pink Sock.” The youngsters erupt enthusiastically.
Under Director Aaron Posner and Associate (movement) Director Erika Chong Shuch’s lead, each of the cast showcases, not only their versatile acting and vocal talent, but highlights their creatively choreographed movements throughout the entire theater. Whether Mooch was doing cartwheels on stage or Millie, Frank, and Ozzie were roaming throughout the aisles looking for Mooch and Earl, every entrance and performance platform were maximized.
In addition, each actor seemed to be cognizant of some of their audience’s very limited attention span and made a conscious effort to both captivate and control the boisterous youngsters, striving to keep their proclivity to incessantly interact with the characters to a minimum. Nickolas Vaughan, as Mooch, is particularly adept and persuasive at silencing the kiddos on cue; at one point, getting nearly everyone in the theater to hold still for a few moments and even persuading most to close their eyes when he nicely requested.
Closely following McDonnell’s book of the same name, the The Gift of Nothing’s storyline is straightforward, yet heartwarming and enriching: Mooch (Nicholas Vaughan) is a charming, as curious cat, wanting to get the “purr-fect” holiday gift for his best friend Earl (Maggie Donnelly), a delightful, loveable pup. Of course, Earl already seems to have all he needs: a bowl, a bed, and a squeaky chew toy. So, what do you get someone who has everything? Well, nothing, of course! So, Mooch decides to get him nothing — but every nothing he finds is actually something.
The 60-minute musical artfully and cleverly attracts the participation of the children, and hearing their intermittently humorous replies and attempts to assist Mooch provides abundant entertainment for the adults. Nickolas Vaughan, as Mooch, comfortably connects with the audience, alongside ample assistance from Maggie Donnelly as his best pal, Earl; Joseph Patrick O’Malley as Earl’s kindhearted owner, Ozzie; Sakile Lyles as the phone-gripping little girl, Doozy; and Rachel Zampelli and Michael John Casey as Mooch’s owners, Millie and Frank (Casey also doubles as the show’s drummer/percussionist). The ensemble also includes Stephen Russell Murray, Cory Cunningham, and Nora Palka.
With lively piano and sprightly drum/percussion accompaniment, the songs, with the exception of the more theatrical, multi-colored light-enhanced department-store number, “Any Something Everywhere” and the moving “Waiting at the Window,” are light, spirited and carefree. Rachel Zampelli (Millie), Michael John Casey (Frank) and Maggie Donnelly (Earl) beautifully harmonize in “Waiting at the Window”, simultaneously conveying each character’s feelings of joy, love, fear, worry, disappointment and loneliness. “A Special Day” and “Finale” also effectively exhibit each of the ensemble’s solid singing ability in exuberant, unifying fashion.
The Kennedy Center’s The Gift of Nothing is a fanciful, family-friendly musical that has a little bit of everything for everyone. This holiday season, introduce your loved ones to the magic of live theater in an intimate and interactive venue and give the gift of igniting the imaginations of children and adults alike.
Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes, with no intermission.