BWW Reviews: The Kennedy Center's THE GIFT OF NOTHING is the Perfect Holiday Treat for Families

By: Nov. 25, 2014
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Think back to the golden age of childhood, when trips to the library always contained colorful stories filled with timeless life lessons. That wonderful ambiance has been lovingly recreated with the world premiere musical The Gift of Nothing at Performances for Young Audiences at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The Gift of Nothing combines the best elements of story time filled with characters and lessons that bond with young theatergoers in a way only possible through the power of live theater. Even better, this little gem of a show teaches children about the necessity to unplug from our handheld devices and remember that the joy is not in the gift, but in the act of giving. It's the perfect message for this time of year.

Featuring the characters of Patrick McDonnell's MUTTS comic strip, and faithfully adapted by McDonnell, Aaron Posner and Erin Weaver, The Gift of Nothing tells the story of Earl (Maggie Donnelly) the enthusiastic pup and Mooch (Nickolas Vaughan) the curious cat. Today is a special day and to celebrate, Mooch has decided to give Earl a present, but he can't decide on what to give the dog that has everything?

McDonnell, Posner and Weaver have done a solid job transitioning the story to the stage. The show has retained the book's themes of friendship and giving. Andy Mitton's music is catchy and tuneful, while his simplistic lyrics are easy for children to follow. Additionally, the production is filled with wonderful moments of audience participation that will keep the most easily-distracted young theatergoer engaged and delighted.

Adding to the energy onstage is the wonderful ensemble led by Donnelly and Vaughan. Both do a phenomenal job embodying the characteristics of the animals combined with the personalities of their characters. They have no problem capturing the imagination of the young audience, regardless of if they're cat or dog people!

Rachel Zampelli gets some of the productions biggest laughs as Millie, Mooch's passionate and somewhat obsessed owner. Whether she's rolling on or off stage or calling for her "Moochy," everything she does generates laughs. Michael John Casey is Millie's husband Frank, as well as the production's drummer. His comically grumpy behavior is a great counterbalance to Millie's lively personality.

Equally passionate about his pet is Ozzie (Joseph O'Malley), Earl's owner. O'Malley has a warm and inviting personality that gets the show off to a fun start. One especially endearing moment is when he asks the audience about their pets and does a bit of improv involving their responses.

Rounding out the ensemble is Sakile Lyles who plays Doozy, the little girl sent outside in hopes that maybe she'll find something fun that doesn't involve texting or wifi. Lyles has a wonderful voice and terrific stage presence. Together with Donnelly's Earl, we get to see the joy that comes from the connection between children and animals.

Posner also serves as the production's director. He smartly has the actors use big bold gestures to help communicate the action onstage and connect with the young audience. Luciana Stecconi's all-white set gives the Kennedy Center Family Theater a whimsical feeling. We feel as if we're transported into the story, rather than simply watching one being performed. Enhancing that feeling is Laree Lentz's costumes which remain faithful to the designs of the original MUTTS comics.

As the show starts O'Malley's Ozzie asks the audience, "Is there anything better than beginnings?" This innocent question is also a poignant observation considering that for many in the Family Theater, it's the beginning of their journey as theatergoers.

The Gift of Nothing is the perfect outing for families with young children hoping to see a meaningful show this holiday season. Polished, well-acted, filled with catchy music and containing important life lessons, it's an impressive world premiere for Performances for Young Audiences at the Kennedy Center.

Runtime: One hour with no intermission.

Please note: The Gift of Nothing will offer a special sensory-friendly performance on December 27th. Details maybe found here.

The Gift of Nothing plays thru December 28th at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets, call (202) 416-8000 or purchase them online.

Photo: Maggie Donnelly as Earl and Nickolas Vaughan as Mooch in The Gift of Nothing. Credit: Scott Suchman.