There's some unexpected depth in "Junior Claus," the children's Christmas musical onstage at Orlando Repertory Theatre. Yes, it's full of the typical silly jokes, catchy songs, and bright costumes, playing on a delightful Santa's Workshop set by Cindy White.
But when actor Sage Starkey, as Junior, says it's hard to live in his father's shadow, you feel something deeper than in your average cartoon. Who, no matter what age, doesn't hope to fulfill a parent's expectations?
Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond have assembled a not unfamiliar story. (For example, rename the characters "Simba," "Scar" and "Nala," switch the setting to Africa — and you have the basic plot of Disney's "The Lion King.")
Junior Claus wants to make his pop proud, but instead makes a mess of things. In disgrace, he runs away, leaving the tyrannical Grumpo to ruin the North Pole. But perky Chipper finds Junior and helps him take his true place in the circle of life, I mean holiday hierarchy. Oh, yeah, and he has to save Christmas.
The playwrights seem inspired by old-school Christmas TV specials but spice things up with a modern bent: Santa's toymakers drink "elfy protein shakes" to keep up their strength, and their toys come with an "elfin warranty." Junior has ideas to make Christmas "cooler," like a thermal-powered super sleigh or remote-control gift delivery.
It works on multiple levels: The smallest kids can follow the story, while older children appreciate the yellow-snow jokes. Some laughs are aimed at adults. A displaced penguin mocks racists: "We don't all look alike, and we don't all know each other," she squawks indignantly.
Director Jeffrey M. Revels, the Rep's artistic director, keeps the action chugging nicely along, although from time to time his actors hit their marks too obviously.
Wesley Slade, as Grumpo, attacks his comedic, not scary, role with appropriate scenery-chewing glee. He's ably assisted by Sarah Jane Fridlich as a dim-bulb henchwoman (hench-elf?). Ashlyn Eggebrecht keeps her motormouth penguin charming, and Savannah Simerly conveys the strength under Chipper's perkiness.
But it's Starkey's show — he's onstage nearly every minute — and he gives appealing layers to Junior. Starkey saved Christmas for the Rep last year, as well (in "A Nutty Nutcracker Christmas)." This year, in a more grown-up role, he's not as flat-out funny. Instead, he offers shadings of the insecurities people of any age feel as they look for something to believe in and face up to adulthood.
• What: Orlando Repertory Theatre production of a Michael Kooman-Christopher Dimond musical
• Length: 1:45, including 5-minute "stretch break"
• Where: Orlando Repertory Theatre, 1001 E. Princeton St., Orlando
• When: 2 and 5:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Dec. 23
• Tickets: $17; $15 students and seniors; $11 ages 17 and younger
• Call: 407-896-7365
• Online: OrlandoRep.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times