"How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower ...
In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy, too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do. ..."
But in Wonderland, Alice finds, it comes out like this:
"How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale.
"How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!"
Alice's eyes fill up with tears of perplexity. Good -- we enjoy her befuddlement. Let her struggle to recall the Rev. Watts' conventional (and admirable) views of earnest endeavor. It frees us to enter all the more gleefully into the spirit of irreverence, nonsense and inconsequential malice of this amusing nether world. The fact is, there is at least as much to be learned from contemplating the hypocritical crocodile as by observing the industrious bumble bee. And after all, for centuries, kids have squealed with delight, watching Mr. Punch hit his wife Judy over the head with her own baby without turning into fratricidal maniacs.
This brings us to Le Petit's recent production in the Teddy's Corner of Free to Be ... You and Me -- a title Watts might have coined had he been reincarnated as an enlightened contemporary American pedagogue. The show was conceived by actress Marlo Thomas, but the individual skits and bits were written by 14 contributors, including Shel Silverstein and Carl Reiner.
Brandt Blocker's production was well-crafted, as usual. Bill Walker's colored chalk-on-blackboard set was attractive and fitting -- as were Carroll Sauber's costumes and Jauné Buisson's choreography.
The cast was surprisingly large -- with some top-notch performers including Cynthia Owen, Rendell Debose and Terri Gervais spending a good deal of time in the wings, waiting to do one or two numbers. A core group of "kids" -- Gabrielle Porter, Sal Mannino, Alexis Bruza and David Bologna -- took us through the various segments. They were a spirited, charming ensemble. And a special tip of the head is deserved by 13-year-old Bruza and 8-year-old Bologna, great little troupers. Someone ought to put together a Pinocchio with Bologna as the puppet; he's a natural.
The most inventive skit of the show comes first. C. Patrick Gendusa and Cathie Chopin-Weinstein enter as newborns -- human puppets complete with their own hospital beds. The image is hilarious and the dialogue is a pleasantly absurd argument between the two babies as they try to determine whether they are boys or girls. Here, the message of the day --"gender doesn't matter" -- gets a witty and satiric treatment.
Almost all the segments are built around song numbers, and the tunes are inevitably catchy. At their best, they have a Sesame Street mixture of fun and instruction.
The problem is the cumulative effect of so much politically correct "nice-nice." A man can be a nurse. OK, great. A woman can be a cop. Fine. It's all right if a little boy wants to play with dolls. Sure. It's all right to cry. It's all right to have feelings. By this time, despite the winning ways of the cast, I found myself breaking out into a rash from a modern mutant form of "Reverend Isaac Watt-ism."
But the worst was yet to come: a saccharine, non-competitive update of the Greek myth about Atalanta, the fleet-of-foot maid who loses a race because she stops to pick up golden apples. In this "now" version, Atalanta's suitor is such a sensitive male, he only wants to win so he can talk to her -- not possess her, God forbid. And guess what? The boy and the girl cross the finish line together, breaking the tape at the very same instant! Isn't that just like life? Doesn't that prepare the little ones for their journey through life? No smiling crocodiles out there, waiting to cobble up credulous little fishes.
Of course, as all children instinctively know, the world is much more dangerous than this denatured myth suggests and, also, much more fun.
As for me, my inner child was squirming and longing to toss a water balloon at Atalanta and her suitor both. Oh, for an astringent whiff of anarchy, a rabbit hole to some darker, less wholesome realm, where babies turn into pigs and queens scream, "Off with her head!"