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Here's Looking at You, Kids

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Even under the best of circumstances, creating an original musical is tough sledding. But the writers of children's musicals face a special artistic challenge: To build an audience, they need to mount a production that will entertain the under-14 set and, hopefully, the parents who brought them to the show.

That ingredient is hard to come by, which is all the more reason to cheer the opening of Samantha Spade, Ace Detective: The Case of the Maltball Falcon at New York City's Drama Desk Award-Winning Tada! Youth Theater in Manhattan.

Bring the kids, pack some Twizzlers and Brush up your Bogey for a new musical that celebrates Skittles, lampoons tween-teen angst and serves up a crash course in film noir trivia. Boosted by Tada's! immensely talented kids, writer Lisa Diana Shapiro and composer Georgia Stitt have crafted an engaging, fast-paced show that will appeal to all ages.

Under the inventive direction of Joanna Greer, who also choreographed the action, Samantha Spade begins on what seems to be a familiar note: It's the last week at Merrilee Musical Theatre Camp, and kids are struggling to put on an original production.

The cast of characters includes Jen, a snarky diva, her eye-rolling retinue (Natasha, Latisha, Natanya and Lasagna), the boys who follow them around and a misunderstood girl named Samantha who everyone blames for their failure to write a good story. A key stage prop -- a falcon filled with maltballs -- is missing, and they blame her for that, too.

But then the show pivots unexpectedly: The summer camp tableau gives way to a Big City set, where Samantha -- traveling deep into her imagination -- turns into a tough-talking, trench coat-wearing private-eye, flanked by her kid sister, Angel.

In no time, we're pulled into the opening scene of a million late-night crime-boilers. Veronica Venus, a snazzy dame, struts into Spade's office spinning a tale of heartbreaking loss that, experience tells us, is a big fat lie. But just what is Venus hiding, why does Spade keep offering her Twizzlers ("No thanks," says Veronica, "I'm a Red Vine Kind of Gal") -- and how will the whodunit rapidly unfolding in Samantha's movie-mad mind bring us back safely to Camp Merrilee in the requisite 60 minutes?

Safe to say, the story ends happily. Call it The Maltese Falcon meets Mean Girls, and give Shapiro and Stitt credit for striking a near-perfect balance between kid-friendly action and high-end satire.

It doesn't hurt that Shapiro's wise-cracking script is packed with allusions to Humphrey Bogart's 1941 film, including characters known as Greenstreet and M--a play on actors Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in the original. In one of the best numbers, "Slinging the Slang," Spade gives her sister (and the audience) a rapid-fire guide to film noir lingo:

If you're feeling Okay
Then Everything's Jake
It's eggs in the coffee
Or a big piece of cake
If you're feeling Okay
Those are things you can say
You're a Whiz-Bang, Boomerang, One of the Gang
And Now You're Slingin' the Slang

Shapiro, a multi-talented screenwriter and playwright, captures the hardboiled rat-a-tat with flair. At one point Spade confesses: "I'm just an honest jane doing a day's work for a sawbuck and a plugged nickel." Elsewhere, the teen sleuth shrugs when asked why she's come to the scene of a crime and says: "I just keep turning up, like a bad penny." Shapiro showed a wonderfully inventive touch in an earlier Tada! musical, Princess Phooey, but she's broken new ground here with her story of a gumshoe girl and the stuff that dreams are made of.

None of this would work, of course, without music that grabs you, and Stitt delivers a first-rate score that sticks in the memory long after the curtain comes down -- which is more than you can say for a lot of Broadway musicals these days. An accomplished songwriter, teacher, arranger, musician, conductor and performer, Stitt needs no introduction to New York audiences: She's written award-winning shows and recorded three highly-praised CDs, with songs performed by a who's who of Broadway talent, including Kelli O'Hara, Kate Baldwin, Matthew Morrison, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Cheyenne Jackson and others.

In Samantha Spade she uncorks several numbers that sound like instant classics -- vintage Broadway standards you've never heard. "Slingin' the Slang," "It's Gonna Be Great" and "Shaughnessy, Brady, Kenneally, O'Hurly and Tuck," a rollicking police send-up, are standouts in a show packed with great tunes. Married to Tony-winning lyricist and composer Jason Robert Brown, Stitt is a musical theatre phenom whose star is rising fast.

But let's not forget the kids. Tada's! Resident Youth Ensemble drives the show with high-energy performances by young performers, ages 9 to 17, and some of them clearly seem destined for bigger things. Led by Janine Nina Trevens, Executive and Artistic Director, Tada! has become one of the nation's most respected children's musical theater troupes -- and "Samantha Spade, Ace Detective" is a vivid example of the work it's been producing for 30 years.

But most important, this is the kind of show that might stoke kids' interest in musicals -- and leave them wanting more. To paraphrase a great man, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Twizzler, anyone?

Sam Spade, Ace Detective: The Case of the Maltball Falcon is playing through May 18 at the Tada! Youth Theatre -- 15 W. 28th Street in Manhattan.

Correction: This post mistakenly referred to Georgia Stitt as George Stitt.