This wimpy kid can sing

Children’s Theatre Company premieres its “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” musical

Photo courtesy of the Children's Theatre Company
Photo courtesy of the Children's Theatre Company

Ricky Falbo is 13 years old, in the 7th grade and, as such, perfectly positioned to test the truth of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” on the ground.

The report back from middle school: Jeff Kinney gets it.

“Everybody can relate to it, and I think it’s awesome,” Falbo said.

Kinney’s fantastically popular children’s book series charts the triumphs and traumas of those pivotal middle-grades years through the experiences of Greg Heffley, who’s writing it all down in his journal. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” began life as an online serial, became a best-selling book with nine sequels (and counting), has inspired three Hollywood film adaptations and, in April, arrived on the Children’s Theatre Company stage as a world-premier musical, the capstone to the theater’s 50th-anniversary season.

Along the way, Kinney’s creation has earned praise for its pitch-perfect rendering of middle schooler dialogue and its pimples-and-all portrayal of adolescence — a time of confusion, striving and just wanting to fit in somewhere.

“Everybody can relate to a certain character,” Falbo, who’s read every “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book, said. “Some people are really popular. Some people aren’t so popular and don’t care about it, like (Greg’s friend) Rowley.

“And some people are trying too hard to be popular, and that’s Greg.”

While he considers himself “more of the Rowley kind of type” in real life, the Chicago-based actor stars as Greg in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical” and is onstage for every minute of the highly anticipated, two-hour show. It was developed at Children’s Theatre Company in cooperation with Fox Stage Productions and Broadway producer Kevin McCollum, who took home Best Musical Tony Awards for “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and “In the Heights.”

That makes speculating about where “Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical” might be headed next is almost irresistible. But the actress who plays Greg’s mom, Autumn Ness, said the cast and crew are taking it day-by-day.

“We can’t really worry about that now, today. ” Ness said in an interview a few hours before one of the mid-April preview performances. “Today, we open this show here in Minneapolis for this 750 people, and then tomorrow we make it better for that 750 people.”

Children’s Theatre Artistic Director Peter Brosius said the potential of a promising new work can be a distraction, “but what’s been so cool about this team is everyone’s been focused on this production.”

“Then you just wait and see,” Brosius said. “You see how it plays.”

Brosius said he’d been a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” fan ever since his son read the first book.

“Then I stole it and read it myself,” he added, describing it as smart, hilarious and touching.

It’s not just about Kinney’s writing. Once an aspiring newspaper cartoonist, Kinney peppers Greg’s journal with illustrations. Those drawings become an integral part of the stage production, too; a giant piece of lined notebook paper serves as both a backdrop to the set and a screen onto which Kinney’s drawings are projected.

The books don’t, of course, include any music or lyrics. Translating Kinney’s source material into musical theater, Michael Mahler said he and co-music director Alan Schmuckler attempted to reveal the emotions that are sometimes hidden between lines of Greg’s journal.

“We really approached writing the score as trying to explode what it feels like to be in middle school,” Mahler said. “To us it felt like everything is happening in a big way all the time, all at once. When there were moments for big musical gestures, we went for it.”

Mahler and Schmuckler drew on their own middle-school experiences when they were composing, and they said Kinney’s writing transported them back to what can be an emotionally turbulent time of life.

“You truly believe that he’s writing a dispatch to you from the frontlines of middle school,” Mahler, who grew up in Minnetonka, said. “It feels so immediate and right there.”

Brandon Brooks, who plays Greg’s older brother, Roderick, said that feeling of not quite fitting in is universal, which is why people of all ages find a way to identify with Greg Heffley.

“Everyone had that experience at some point — maybe not in middle school, maybe in high school, maybe earlier than middle school. But everyone had that experience at some point, of being that wimpy kid, of being that misfit, outcast, at some point or another, in some way or another,” Brooks said. “I know I definitely did. Until I found theater I had no idea what my place was.”

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical”

When: Through June 5

Where: Children’s Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Ave. S.

Info: childrenstheatre.org, 874-0400

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