WASHINGTON — Washington--The first image in the musical "Captains Courageous" is a man wielding two oars on a stage shrouded in dry ice. It's a simple but glorious vision, and it sets the scene for this splendidly realized adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's tale of a boy coming of age on the high seas, currently receiving its world premiere at Ford's Theatre.
From the opening moments, this show is on course, and it gets better as it goes along. The second scene is set on board the schooner, the "We're Here," which fills the entire stage, dominated by a centrally placed mast. While singing "Nothin' to Do," one of a bevy of sea shanty-inspired songs in Frederick Freyer and Patrick Cook's tuneful score, the crew rigs the ship before our eyes; when the mainsail swings out over the audience, you can almost smell the salt water.
But what makes this musical work isn't merely Christopher Barreca's clever set or the imaginative way director/choreographer Graciela Daniele incorporates its intricate rigging into the slick movements of her all-male cast.
Composer Freyer and librettist Cook have created a show in which the songs establish the characters and develop the relationships between them. Furthermore, by using the 1937 Hollywood movie as their starting point, they have a selected a source with a more grown-up orientation than the book, since the movie gave the boy an adult mentor, instead of another child.
In addition, not content to merely musicalize the movie, the creators have added a subplot about the looming obsolescence of fishing schooners. In the process, they have darkened several the characters, most notably, the captain (Don Chastain), who is now a scoundrel even more selfish than spoiled, poor-little-rich Harvey, the boy at the center of the tale. The result is a production that exudes sophistication without sacrificing the wide-eyed sensibility guaranteed to keep young theatergoers on the edge of their seats.
At the same time, they have zeroed in on highly moving material, accentuated by a score that heightens the emotions without milking them. Still, it is a measure of young Kel O'Neill's maturity that in portraying Harvey, he remains self-possessed in scenes fully capable of choking up the adults in the audience.
In these moments, you are convinced Harvey has learned from the example of John Dossett's stalwart but good-hearted Manuel, the Portuguese fisherman who rescues him when he falls off his father's ocean liner at the start of the show. Dossett is one of the cast's 14 fishermen, a tough-spirited crew whose voices blend in harmony as tight as their rivalry is fierce.
"Captains Courageous" may be the work of a British author, but this is a bona fide American musical in the best tradition of that indigenous form. In both Kipling's novel and the movie, the sailors frequently seemed over-romanticized. There's no danger of that in a show with lyrics that prophesy: "When the sea wants blood, the sea takes blood."
When the rough crew members of the "We're Here" dub Harvey a bad-luck Jonah and threaten to do away with him, they mean business. There are no Jonahs in this musical, however; it's a stunning debut that deserves nothing less than a berth on
When: Tuesdays to Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Sept. 26 at 2 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. and Thursdays at 1 p.m. (beginning Oct. 1). Through Nov. 22.
Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. N.W., Washington.
Call: (202) 347-4833.