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'Martha Speaks' has something to say to all ages

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
The cast of 'Martha Speaks.' Credit: Theatreworks USA

When Martha the dog eats a bowl of alphabet soup and starts talking like a person — and when children can see this anthropomorphic transformation on a live stage in the “Martha Speaks” musical — a fantasy comes true, because pets are “so much a part of our family,” says one of the actors in the show.

“The fantasy of that pet being able to talk is so appealing to kids,” says Joel Sparks, who plays the characters of the dad and hotel guest Mr. Tarrington. “They start out laughing, screaming and talking. By halfway through the show, they are absolutely dead silent and mesmerized.”

“Martha Speaks,” presented by Pittsburgh International Children's Theater, combines the storylines of the original “Martha Speaks” and “Martha Calling” books from the popular series by author Susan Meddaugh, which inspired an animated PBS Kids show.

In the story, after Martha starts talking, she gets herself into quite a bit of mischief. She gets on the phone and orders $5,000 worth of meat, for instance. She calls a radio station for a trivia contest, and wins for her family an all-expenses-paid vacation to a luxurious hotel. But now, the pooch faces rejection — Martha is not allowed at a restaurant, airplane or inn with her family — and sticks up for herself and fellow canines. Can she talk her way out of this?

“The whole moral of the story is to stand up for what you believe in ... and for the dogs who can't speak up for themselves,” says Sparks, 22, who lives in New York City. “It's a very interesting story. It's very sweet. It appeals to all ages, even adults.”

The 55-minute play “Martha Speaks” is full of laughs and comedy, from slapstick and witty humor such as plays on words, Sparks says. The all-adult performers sing the energetic, original music by composer Brad Alexander live, backed by a recorded instrumental score, he says. Letters of the alphabet form much of the stage scenery to complement the alphabet-soup story that started Martha's journey. At the end of the show, wooden dog puppets come out to surprise the audience, Sparks says.

Children, he says, often benefit from the educational experience of attending “Martha Speaks,” which will play at six locations in greater Pittsburgh during the next two weeks. At the show, a speaker asks the audience, “How many of you have not been to a play before?”

“You would not believe how many kids raise their hands when they're asked that question,” Sparks says. The show is “not only a moral lesson for kids, but it's an introduction to theater.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

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