Cats get a bad rap in plays for kids: They are seen as aloof, greedy, manipulative, smug, impudent or generally due a comeuppance by the end.
So one testament to the novelty of “Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood” is that feline TeJean (Isaac Gay) becomes the voice of reason. This tale uses the traditional version as a jumping-off point for silliness and songs with Louisiana seasoning. We feel we know it, point by point, but not entirely.
The villain is not a wolf but a gator named Claude (Mark Sutton, an audience favorite until he went into the audience and elicited shrieks from little folk). Rouge (Cassandra Howley Wood) is a duck who wants to show she can be trusted to deliver gumbo, cornbread and hot sauce to her flu-ridden Grandmere (Jany Bacallao).
Mama Duck (Lucianne Hamilton) permits her to go only in the company of harmonica-playing TeJean. The rest of the play consists of Claude chasing them through the bayou, around a riverboat or in and out of the alleys of New Orleans. He eats a riverboat captain (offstage) and belches lustily, so we know this gator means business. On the other hand, he’s slightly smarter than a warmed-over beignet, so we aren’t supposed to fear him.
Composer-writer-lyricist Joan Cushing, who was in the audience Friday, crams the 75-minute play with incidents and musical interludes: Dixieland (including ’20s-style sounds), zydeco, jazz and pop.
Despite a few references, such as gator hunters who look like “Duck Dynasty” refugees, the play exists in no particular time. It switches moods rapidly, from a funny New Orleans street funeral for a chipmunk (a victim of Claude’s) to a strobe-lit pillow fight between Claude and Grandmere. Director Ron Chisholm doesn’t let things get too frantic, and he choreographs a zany pots-and-pans routine for Bacallao, Hamilton and Kayla Piscatelli in three of their many guises.
Wood and Gay reminded me of mischievous Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket; they’re like an impetuous kid and a fond but disapproving nanny. Rouge remains so innocent we know nothing bad can happen in her world, even to Claude: A hunter may tote green alligator boots at the end, but as a child near me said when Claude reappeared, “He’s still got feet!” In this gentle version, nobody is going to gut the gator.