BEVERLY — Fifteen monkeys scamper, shriek, and swirl around Pezzo the peddler as he stamps his foot and demands the monkeys return his caps. The scene unfolding in a rehearsal room re-creates one of the most beloved moments in the children’s book “Caps for Sale,” but for this Boston Children’s Theatre world premiere, Pezzo (Steve Gagliastro) is singing his demands and the monkeys (actors ages 8 to 18) are responding with athletic dance and vocal accompaniment.
Esphyr Slobodkina’s brightly colored 1940 classic traces the simple tale of a peddler whose attempt to sell his caps, which he wears piled up on his head, is complicated by the monkeys, who take his caps while he’s sleeping and put them on their own heads.
“It is a thin book,” says composer Paul Lewis, who wrote the musical adaptation with playwright Gabriel Carbajal, “but the language is so musical and the story so enchanting, our job was to develop a dramatic arc and expand the story line while staying true to the original story.”
With permission from Slobodkina’s estate, Lewis and Carbajal combined the 1967 sequel, “Circus Caps for Sale,” with the original story and gave Pezzo a journey with a purpose and some obstacles to overcome, along with a musical score that mixes jazz and pop melodies to animate the story.
“It was intimidating to create a melodic line for Pezzo’s iconic line, ‘Caps for sale,’ ” says Lewis, who has written plays, operas, and musical theater. “I didn’t want the score to be overly sweet. It needed to have some sophistication, while the tone and color come from the book.”
“Caps for Sale” was selected by Boston Children’s Theatre for its Marcia J. Trimble New Works Program. Since 2012, the program has developed several plays and musicals, offering world premiere productions of “Reflections of a Rock Lobster,” “Calvin’s Monster,” and “The Homework Machine.”
“I loved this book when I was a kid,” says Burgess Clark, BCT’s executive artistic director, who is directing “Caps for Sale.” “I think Paul and Gabe understood which parts of the story resonated, and which needed more emphasis.”
BCT produced a workshop of “Caps for Sale” in November 2014 and then worked through e-mail and by phone to make changes with the writers, who are based in Seattle.
“The collaborative process has been so rewarding,” says Lewis. “I knew Gabe as an actor and a teacher, and he brought his insights around working with kids. But then when a play first gets on its feet, it’s so exciting. Burgess and Austin [Davy, the musical director] had wonderful ideas, and we all agreed on a shared vision.”
Clark says developing new work for children is his favorite challenge, partly because he’s so adamant about not talking down to kids. “Kids have much more sophisticated tastes today,” he says. “Their expectations have changed, and the stories we tell need to reflect those interests.”
While “Caps for Sale” has built-in name recognition, Clark says that’s only one factor in the selection committee’s decision. There’s also the creative team’s willingness to participate in the process of preparing a piece for audiences.
“When we see the scripts submitted for our New Works program, we’re not only looking for well-written stories, we’re also looking for writers who are willing to collaborate to make the changes needed for the play or musical to succeed on stage.”
Clark says the excitement around developing new work extends to the child actors who participate in Boston Children’s Theatre productions. Actors who played leading roles in earlier productions of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Pinkalicious” are playing monkeys or minor characters in “Caps for Sale,” simply because they want to be a part of it.
The range of experience among the performers offers a wonderful opportunity for the kids to learn from each other, says Clark.
“I love that an 8-year-old is working with 14- and 18-year-olds,” he says. “I also love the fact that Austin, who grew up performing with BCT, has now, at age 23, become so accomplished Paul asked him to write additional orchestrations for the show.”
A madcap ‘Pinafore’
Flying beach balls, a pina colada stand, a balloon-filled mosh pit, and, oh yeah, impeccable singer-actors: The Hypocrites are back.
The Chicago-based theater company returns to Oberon March 8-20 with “H.M.S. Pinafore,” their third delightfully zany interpretation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operas to be staged in Cambridge.
Sean Graney’s truly creative take on these 19th-century classics mines all the joy of the music and storytelling while giving them just the right fast-forward spin.
While “Pirates of Penzance” was set on a beach and “The Mikado” had the feel of a three-ring circus, “H.M.S. Pinafore” immerses the audience in the midst of the action: There are places to rest but no fixed seats.
Hypocrites’ productions are so much fun you’ll feel like a kid on Christmas morning. You might even forget you’re in a theater. Tickets start at $25; go to www.americanrepertorytheater or call 617-547-8300.
CAPS FOR SALE
Book, music, and lyrics by Paul Lewis and Gabriel Carbajal. Directed by Burgess Clark. Presented by Boston Children’s Theatre. At the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, March 5-13. Tickets: $20-$35, 617-933-8600, www.bostonchildrenstheatre.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.