American Pops Orchestra cleverly re-imagines ‘The Pied Piper’ at Arena Stage

The weather outside was surely cold and cranky. But the outside world could be quickly forgotten as the American Pops Orchestra (APO), led by Maestro Luke Frazier, gently took children and adults by the hand and engaged them with a gleeful new musical take on an old fairytale, The Pied Piper–gently delivering some innovative life lessons along the way. The Pied Piper was another in the APO’s original theatrical children’s series written by Claybourn Elder.

Children and families enjoy the American Pops Orchestra's performance at Arena Stage. Photo courtesy of The American Pops Orchestra.
Children and families enjoy the American Pops Orchestra’s performance at Arena Stage. Photo courtesy of The American Pops Orchestra.

In the APO’s Pied Piper, movement and singer helped illuminate the narrative. The musical numbers were drawn from the Great American Songbook and pop tunes, including one cutely performed snippet from a long-running television series.

The live music was delightfully and crisply performed by eight members of the APO. The instruments included piano, drums, guitar, 2 violins, viola, cello, and bass. The musical numbers were sung with great carefree animated cheer by the show’s three cast members. From my vantage point, the very diverse audience of children and adults were totally enthralled.

So, what was the APO’s Pied Piper about? This time it was a town led by co-mayors who had forbidden happiness for the townsfolk, including the orphan children who did all the dirty work in town. There was to be no music, singing, or dancing by its citizenry. Even the rats who infested the small hamlet had a hard time. This Pied Piper was a woman who used jaunty music, delightful singing, and glorious movement to convince the powerful town co-mayors to change their ways.

Oh, and the APO’s rats were cuddly and misunderstood.

The Pied Piper cast included a lively, open to anything, Hillary Morrow as the character of the Pied Piper. Morrow was a shining gently powerful force central to the production’s joy. This was her fourth children’s musical with APO. New to the APO’s children’s theater was José Raúl Mangual. He played several characters including co-mayor, a cute Rat and an orphan. His leg extensions while dancing were a wonder. Introducing Mangual to the audience, APO’s Luke Frazier noted that Mangual was the winner of APO’s 2019 NextGen Competition selected from a group of 30 talented finalists. Karen Vincent also appeared as several characters including a co-mayor, a cute Rat and an orphan. She was often a more angelical presence in the production. While this was Vincent’s first children’s musical with APO, she has performed in Into The Woods at Ford’s Theatre and James and The Giant Peach at Adventure Theatre.

The cast of the American Pops Orchestra's production of 'The Pied Piper.' L-R: Hillary Morrow, José Raúl Mangual, Karen Vincent. Photo courtesy of The American Pops Orchestra.
The cast of the American Pops Orchestra’s production of ‘The Pied Piper.’ L-R: Hillary Morrow, José Raúl Mangual, Karen Vincent. Photo courtesy of The American Pops Orchestra.

To open the production, Frazier introduced the musicians and their instruments. There was a teasing good-natured banter between Frazier and the musicians. Under it all, the audience got to know how an instrument sounded.

The Pied Piper musical numbers helped emphasize the spoken narrative of the production, while adding cuteness factors by providing musical impact. The cast voices were clear, bright and very expressive. The chipper set in the Molly Smith Study at Arena Stage was a visually friendly one. Signs saying “no dancing,” “no music,” “no singing,” were read to the children in the audience.

The musical numbers “Shall We Dance?” “I Put a Spell on You,” and “I Will Always Love You” as well as “Mambo Italiano” were totally dashing. The children and adults in the audience were wide-eyed, involved and appreciative. Often each song was a long snippet from the full song, but sufficient to more than pique the interest of the children in the audience.

As for how the music was selected, in an earlier interview, Luke Frazier noted thatI want the kids to experience music that their parents or grandparents may have heard while they were growing up. I don’t believe that kids only want to listen to ‘kids’ music.’ We find that kids love anything that sounds fun and is sung really well.” 

The APO Pied Piper’s costumes were creative and adorable, and included silver slippers, huge rat’s ears and tails, along with one sparkling long cape that brought wide beams of smiles to the audience. Props included a grocery cart full of toys and toy instruments that were well used. The children at the performance I attended seemed to be from pre-kindergarten age through perhaps up to fifth-grade students. (I had help from my wife, who in her earlier life was once the national literacy lead for the U.S. Head Start program).

This Pied Piper delivered a few gentle lessons along the way: speak your mind, don’t always be a silent follower. And intense rules might eventually come to be looked on as outmoded.

Running Time: About 60 minutes, with no intermission. There were also pre-and post-show activities.

APO’s The Pied Piper took place on Saturday, January 18, 2020, at Molly Smith Study at Arena Stage – 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, DC. For more information about the American Pops Orchestra and tickets to upcoming APO events, go online.

Song list:

  • “9 to 5”
  • “Think”
  • “You Turn Me Right Round”
  • “Mambo Italiano”
  • “Shall We Dance”
  • “I Put A Spell On You”
  • “With One Look”
  • “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”
  • “I Say A Little Prayer”
  • “I Will Always Love You”


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