Martha teaches: Talking dog shows kids how to stick up for themselves

No matter how many times a dog’s master commands their pooch to speak, the outcome is usually met with the expected “woof!” If they’re looking for a different reply, maybe some alphabet soup is in order.

At least that’s the clever plot behind the children’s book series, “Martha Speaks,” by Susan Meddaugh, which was turned into a musical that is making its way to the local stage as part of the Family Theatre at the Mishler series Tuesday.

The 60-minute musical is about a family dog named Martha who gains the ability to speak after eating alphabet soup, according to a press release from the show’s production company, Theatreworks USA.

In the production, Martha gets into some shenanigans such as using the telephone. She ends up winning a free family vacation on a radio call-in show, but when Martha and her family get to the hotel, a sign reads: “No dogs allowed!”

The musical is recommended for children ages 4 and up.

Joel Sparks, 22, plays the dad and Mr. Terrington in the show. In a phone interview while on break from touring Thursday, Sparks said this was his first production with the company.

“‘Martha Speaks’ is a series of books, and our show covers the first two in the series starting from when Martha first becomes able to talk and then through her trips with the family to the Come On Inn. And I play the father figure in the family, trying to balance the real world and the world of a talking dog and the reality of all those things that that entails,” he said.

Blair County Arts Foundation Executive Director Kate Shaffer said kids are familiar with the story from the books and a PBS television cartoon based on them.

“What we try to do when we’re balancing the season is try to offer some literary adaptations,”?she said.

“We did actually three of them this year – ‘If you Give a Mouse a Cookie,’ ‘Junie B. Jones’ and ‘Martha Speaks’ – because children are familiar with the books, and they’re familiar with the story so it’s much more engaging for them if they’re familiar with the subject material.”

The show will also be performed for school audiences.

A lesson on standing up for oneself is part of the story.

“Martha is a dog who finds her voice by eating a bowl of [alphabet] soup. And by finding her voice, she learns to stand up for herself and what she believes in,” Theatreworks USA Marketing Associate Christina Hoffman said in an email. “The show very much speaks to a bullying theme. Not only do we want to project the lesson that children should be confident to stand up for what they believe in but also to stand up for themselves.”

Sparks echoed those sentiments.

“The message of the show is that if you see something that’s wrong, speak up and speak up for what you believe in and stand up for what you think is right, and that message really radiates throughout the show and really hits home towards the end,” Sparks said. “The whole show is about how there are no dogs allowed, no dogs allowed and finally Martha who’s a dog and can speak for all the other dogs says, ‘Wait a second, this is ridiculous. Dogs should be allowed.’ And so that’s the moral that jumps out through the story.”

But that’s not all the show has to offer.

“The other thing that’s cool about this show is that it really is an introduction to theater for a lot of these young kids; for a lot of them, it’s one of the first shows that they have seen,” he said, “and so that’s Theatreworks main mission is to bring theater to young audiences that would not normally get to see good quality theater.”

Being a part of that is cool, Sparks said.

“Even on the hardest days of tour, when it’s early… in the morning and you don’t have your coffee quite yet and you’re moaning and groaning, I think back to when I was that age and going to the theater shows and those field trip shows and having that be the highlight of the year, and to remember it to this day means that it made an impact on me, so I know that I can do that for other kids every day, so that’s a very cool gift that I could give.”

Creating a stage production from a book “poses some very real challenges,” Theatreworks USA Artistic Director Barbara Pasternack said in the email.

“A book like ‘Martha Speaks’ is beloved by children,” she said. “They come to the theater with certain expectations, and we want to fulfill those expectations. We try to respect and preserve the essence of the book’s original characters, and the author’s intentions.

“However, because this is a staged musical, there must be character development, conflict (which is the definition of drama) and a good story arc. And, of course, the songwriters have to figure out how to make it sing. If the musical is based on a picture book, the designers have to create sets and costumes that reflect the tone of the illustrations. In the end, the original author often has to give his or her stamp of approval to the show before it begins touring.”

The creative team plays an important role.

“Selecting the right creative team for a project – book writer, composer and lyricist, a director and choreographer and designers – is an essential part of the process,” Pasternack said. “It’s like matchmaking… if the material and creators are a good match, the show is successful.”

The Blair County Arts Foundation does several productions a year with Theatreworks USA “because they’re such a tremendous production company,” Shaffer said.

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.