Review: ‘The Talented Clementine’ at Encore Stage & Studio

A new musical based upon Sara Pennypacker’s book “The Talented Clementine” debuted May 31 at Arlington’s Encore Stage & Studio. Adapted by writer-composer Paul Reisler and children from around the Commonwealth, The Talented Clementine is a fun-filled, topsy-turvy romp through the mind and misadventures of a creative, observant, daydreaming third grader and the adults and children in her life. Directors Susan Alison Keady and Amanda Nell, along with Music Director Sarah Markovits and Assistant Music Director Astrid Lundberg, have brought to life this engaging tale of childhood ambition and anxiety bubbling under the watchful eyes of caring teachers, administrators, and parents.

Nyla Elder plays Clementine in Encore Stage & Studio's production of 'The Talented Clementine.' Photo by Cindy Kane Photography.
Nyla Elder plays Clementine in Encore Stage & Studio’s production of ‘The Talented Clementine.’ Photo by Cindy Kane Photography.

Reisler brings forth the heart and humor of the original story with the assistance of students from various locales, including Carlin Springs Elementary, Dean Elementary, Kenmore Middle School, Rappahannock Elementary, and Red Hill Elementary. This collaboration of youth and experience yields enlivened musical looks at age-old third-grade issues and generates many innovative play-on-word lyrics that elicit giggles, guffaws, and admiration.

The story begins with Clementine (Nyla Elder) singing to the morning stars as she prepares to go to school. Once there, her interest stays fixed out the window even as teachers, her classmates, and eventually the principal attempt to pull her focus back to classwork. They eventually get her attention when she finds out that the third and fourth-grade classes will present a talent show to raise money. Clementine rolls through moments of bravado, self-doubt, and 24 bottles of beer on her way to finding out…but you will need to see the show to know!

Nyla Elder plays Clementine with boundless energy and a thrilling physicality. She throws herself into every song and scene, a hurricane of busy-ness that holds the audience from start to finish. As her parents, Matthew Bloss-Baum and Valeria Peterson are by turns caring, worried, calm, or stressed, giving mature performances of patience and understanding. Her little brother is played to blissful perfection by Hanna Germain, who brings childish wonder and playfulness to the stage as she reacts to Clementine’s well-intended entertainments.

Maggie Donnelly, Isa Paley, Sofia Parfomak, and Ali Link are the frantic faculty working to keep the students on track. This team sings beautifully of the woes and joys of escorting young minds and blossoming spirits through the travails of grade school. Alannah Hjelm is a triple threat as Clementine’s best friend Margaret, the multi-talented girl-wonder who inspires awe and not a little bit of fear in Clementine as she tries to find her own special gift.

The ensemble is a conflagration of delight as they play the students and assorted other parts. They bring music, dance, and the story to life. Throughout the night they inspire the audience to sway to the beat of the songs and to laugh out loud at the unexpected rhymes and hilarious twists to the normal grade school tropes. In one number, “My Dog Did My Homework,” they tell the teachers that their dog should take their tests, as the dog, not the child, did the homework. Led by a dynamic Ava Tavkkoli in the role of Billie, the students turn the story on its head even further, singing about how they, not the dog, ate said homework, noting that it has a taste that is, well, quite special. This particular song by Reisler, Terri Allard, and third-grade classes from Brownsville Elementary has a jazzy, growling-saxophone quality that displays brilliantly the exploding talent of the cast.

Clementine (Nyla Elder) is with her classmates as they come up with their talents for the show. Photo by Cindy Kane Photography.
Clementine (Nyla Elder) is with her classmates as they come up with their talents for the show. Photo by Cindy Kane Photography.

The creative team of Executive Director Sara Strehle Duke, Artistic Director Susan Alison Keady, and Production Manager Rebecca Pfeil have created a space where the cast and crew can explore and deliver fresh theatrical ideas and experiences. Stage Manager Lindsey Gradowski keeps the show at a perfect pitch and pace. Lighting and sound (Gary Hauptman and Kevin Curry) support the action on stage seamlessly.

The Talented Clementine elevates the heart and the soul, is filled with the joy of each of the many people who created it and bring it to life, and will have you tapping your feet throughout. Bring your parents, bring your kids, and go home together singing and smiling along with this talented cast and crew.

The Talented Clementine plays through June 9 at Gunston Theater One – 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, VA, and will also be presented on June 15 in the Little Washington Theater in Washington, VA. Tickets are available at the door, by calling the box office at 703-548-1154, or online.