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Stage review

Boston Children’s Theatre keeps ‘Homework Machine’ humming

The world premiere of the musical “The Homework Machine” runs through Sunday at the Roberts Studio Theatre.

Toby Schine

The world premiere of the musical “The Homework Machine” runs through Sunday at the Roberts Studio Theatre.

What starts out as an innocent extracurricular project turns into a “cockeyed catastrophe,” as one of the lyrics in the world premiere of “The Homework Machine” puts it. The Boston Children’s Theatre production itself is no such thing: It’s a tidy, well-paced tale of grade-school types, universal life lessons, and rollicking show tunes running through Sunday at the Roberts Studio Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion.

Based on the book by best-selling children’s novelist Dan Gutman, “The Homework Machine” features four young classmates — brainiac, cool kid, odd duck, good girl — who form an unlikely pact over the smart kid’s invention, a computer that will do your homework for you in your own handwriting.

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“Homework Sucks” likely won’t rival “Love Stinks” in the anthem department, but the nine original songs written by composer Keith Herrmann and lyricist Mark Cabaniss effectively advance the plot while sounding instantly familiar. A live band playing offstage features bursts of bubbly, string-bending hard rock when the situation calls.

Brenton, the buttoned-up whiz kid who invents the homework machine, agrees to share the fruits of his labor with Kelsey, Judy, and a skeptical boy named Sam, an athletic weisenheimer who is everything Brenton is not. Newburyport High School student Colin Budzyna plays the smart kid with gentle appeal. Ethan Koss-Smith, a Newton South student, plays Sam on cue “like every predictable bully I’ve ever seen on television,” as Kelsey (Manchester Essex middle-schooler Margaret McFadden) jokes at one point.

Though it’s Brenton’s invention that causes all the trouble for the gang, it’s Sam who provides most of the tension. At first dismissive of the smart kid and condescending to the goofy, snack-obsessed Kelsey, who dyes her hair hot pink midway through the action, Sam’s relationship with his Air Force father and his awakening to the value of individual differences — everyone’s “inner freak” — gives this lighthearted show most of its heft.

Under the guidance of director Mary Guaraldi, the show is full of clever staging. Movement is economically evocative; the kids stage a hilly bike ride with nothing more than helmets and handlebars. There are also plenty of nods to the juvenile sense of humor of the target audience. The homework machine is nicknamed “Belch” for its tendency to make rude noises at inopportune moments.

When the machine takes on a life of its own and begins to raise suspicions at school, the “D Squad” — all their last names begin with D — must find a way to pull the plug. (Pulling the actual plug apparently isn’t enough.) They figure if they pose a question Belch can’t answer, the computer will self-destruct.

There are plenty of candidates. How many Skittles would it take to fill the Grand Canyon? What is the meaning of war? And there’s one more question that might find a few parents blinking away a tear or two.

For kids like Brenton and the similarly overachieving Judy (Tyngsboro High School’s Kaliegh Ronan), the dominoes are already beginning to line up, as Brenton says at the outset: “The way your life plays out depends on which dominoes you choose to push over.”

Sometime the dominoes veer off track, nudging into another row and setting off an unexpected chain reaction. That’s true no matter which role you played in middle school. As children’s entertainment, “The Homework Machine” lines up nicely.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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