When I settled into a comfortable seat at Taft Theatre with my 17-month-old daughter to view The Children Theater of Cincinnati’s premiere production of “Casper the Friendly Musical,” I was expecting to step out before the 75 minute performance ended with an antsy baby. Instead, my child was mesmerized from the first spooky sound effects to the final dance number. She even waved at Stretch, Stinky and Fatso during their final bows.
This delightful musical moves at a fast clip, interspersing tap dancing, slapstick, heartfelt musical theater and a lively storyline into a great entertainment experience for the whole family. The stage set, designed by Jennifer Rhodus, is striking and reminiscent of a Scooby Doo episode with bright lights, sharp angles, dark lines and lots of purple. With pumpkins lining the stage and an audience full of children in costumes, the theater felt like a festive Halloween event. The audience was buzzing with enthusiasm and erupted with children’s laughter throughout the performance.
The plot was similar to the 1995 movie starring Christina Ricci (an important feature of my childhood), but with many modern twists, including a reality television setting and playful jokes poking at current life — Twitter, “Paw Patrol” and even our Cincinnati location. Marissa Poole was a joy to watch as the delightfully evil Magdalena, and Sam Johnson, A. James Jones and Joey Logan were a lively and physical trio as Casper’s ghostly uncles. The uncles combined elements of old vaudeville with fun ghostly effects and energetic dance numbers in performances that brightened up any scene they were in. The use of black lights, stage rigging, and wheels on shoes made for clever and visually compelling ghosts.
The children in the cast, including Mackenzie Ruff as Bettina, Jack Theodore Kruse as Casper, and Evan Blust as Donald, were engaging performers who successfully conveyed a wide range of emotions in their performances. Their musical numbers were impressive and filled the room with strong voices. Despite the light-hearted nature of the show, there were heart-warming and emotional themes about love and family that left me squeezing my little one’s hand. Most of these moments depended on the skills of these young actors and actresses.
Casper is much like Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” in that he encourages all of the characters around him to be better people (or in this case, ghosts). He encourages the children to use their imaginations and treat each other with kindness. In addition to lots of fun, the musical has an anti-bullying message, and children are likely to come away thinking about how they might be better friends. Come catch Casper before he floats away! “Casper the Friendly Musical” runs through October 21 at Taft Theater.
Caitlin Tracey-Miller loves museums, art, reading, and freshly baked ginger cookies. She works at the Cincinnati Art Museum and enjoys going on adventures with her husband and toddler.