There is a singular joy in watching a musical that’s not for adults. For one thing, it’s nice and short. But for another, this type of production tends to espouse trite life lessons in a jubilant manner — even the parents in the audience who are desperately trying to get their children to stop fidgeting can’t help but smile along.
Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s “She Persisted, The Musical” fulfills these criteria and more. Based on a children’s book by Chelsea Clinton and directed by Khalia Davis, the musical tells the story of Naomi, a girl who struggles with her desire to be perfect at everything — even though she’s only in the fourth grade. While Naomi is on a school field trip to a museum, she’s taken on a journey through time to visit famous American women of the past. These influential figures remind her that they got to where they were not by being born perfect, but simply through — you guessed it — persisting.
It’s a simple, palatable story that advances toward its goal at a pleasant pace. Loreigna Sinclair carries the show with ease as Naomi, exhibiting a natural charisma throughout her encounters with various historical characters and infusing Naomi’s more somber moments with poignancy. LeighAnn Cannon is another bright spot as both anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar and astronaut Sally Ride. The musical number wherein the former explains the “Apgar score” — a method she invented to help doctors summarize a newborn baby’s health — is the production’s most lively offering, complete with choreography that involves the cast holding onto plastic baby dolls for the entirety of the melody.
The show’s best number, however, is easily its penultimate song. Ruby Bridges (Angel Adedokun) — the first Black woman to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana in 1960 — sings a ballad to Naomi about the importance of being able to “walk on,” even when being discouraged by hate. Adedokun possesses the greatest vocal skill of anyone in the cast, and she shows it off in this number, which functions in its own right as the core of the show — a touching ode to perseverance. No wonder it earns a reprise at the show’s end.
Reconciling a historical perspective within the context of a humorous offering for children can sometimes be a daunting task, but “She Persisted” does an admirable job. The script refuses to gloss over racism in the United States — but it also makes jokes about “Instagram influencers.” Remarkably, these tonal shifts are handled in a tactful way, engaging the children in the audience without lying to them about the history they’re learning.
The show’s set also handles its leaps through time in a practical manner, relying mainly on projections to light up the set. These also indicate changes in setting as Naomi moves from the museum to the hospital to outer space, and so on. This conceit is used to pleasingly sentimental effect at the show’s conclusion, with images of the real women that inspired the musical projected on the walls onstage as the cast departs. Plus, dressing the character of Time (Cassie Grilley) in a pair of sparkly purple overalls can only be described as a stroke of costuming genius.
“She Persisted” is an exceedingly amiable offering for both children and adults. Watching Naomi learn different lessons from various female icons and edge closer and closer to her climactic epiphany —that just doing your best is enough — is a process that even a soulless person could appreciate.
Is it perhaps a little funny to watch Sonia Sotomayor (Carolina Morones) decide to switch careers on the basis of a flippant “Justice is cool”? Yes, it is. But considering that the children in the audience — especially the female ones — will grow up in a world where justice is looking increasingly scant, it’s not exactly an unwelcome sentiment. A little cuteness never hurt anybody.
Because, after all, justice is cool. And the women who star in this musical make it seem possible to achieve — as long as we all keep trying.
‘She Persisted, the Musical’ will be playing at Bay Area Children’s Theatre through Mar. 31
Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].