The first three productions she ever did, Shayna Gabrielle starred as a boy.
Nearly two decades later, the 23-year-old is the lead actress in her Theatreworks musical debut, “Martha Speaks.” And the title role is a golden retriever.
“I rarely get to play a girl,” she laughed last week during a telephone interview. “Boys and animals.”
Four months ago, the native Texan joined the Manhattan-based children’s theater troupe for its national tour of “Martha Speaks.” The show is now on its final leg and making a stop on Saturday, May 11, at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor.
The five-actor, 55-minute show, based on Susan Meddaugh’s best-selling books and an animated PBS series, is geared toward young audiences, according to co-director and choreographer Veronica Reyes-How.
But the show doesn’t exclude adults; it’s chock-full of slapstick comedy, quick puns and high-brow humor, “Martha Speaks” cast member Joel Sparks said during a telephone interview from his Manhattan home.
Ms. Reyes-Howe agreed, and she has experienced the effects of the show’s charm first-hand, she said.
“My husband is an actor, as well, and he is, of course, obligated to see what I’m in or working on,” Ms. Reyes-How said last week during a telephone interview. “And he loves ‘Martha.’ Him and a couple friends came to watch and thought it was really charming and funny. And none of us have kids. There’s a lot of grown-up humor that the kids won’t understand; it’s so witty. And there are a lot of moments the kids will get a kick out of, with Martha dancing around, the neighbors screaming, scared.”
The action begins when Martha—an ordinary dog belonging to a typical middle-American family, but beloved by her best friend, a little girl named Helen—eats a bowl full of alphabet soup. Instead of the letters traveling to her stomach, they take a detour to her brain. And suddenly, she has the gift of gab.
She has a lot to say, according to Ms. Gabrielle.
“When I first come out, I can’t talk, so I’m barking around the stage like a dog and the kids just think that’s so funny and adorable,” she explained. “When I’m finally able to talk, they think it’s hilarious. Helen asks me if I just said something, and I say, ‘No I didn’t, what are you talking about?’ The kids just lose it.”
With Martha’s new ability comes fame, especially when she calls in to a radio trivia show and correctly answers a question, winning the family an all-expense-paid vacation. When the official award notice arrives in the mail, Martha discovers, to her horror, that there are no dogs allowed. And she soon realizes that the trip means more to her owners, and her best friend, than she does, Ms. Reyes-How said.
Helen forgets about Martha, the director said, and puts their friendship aside.
“The story is about their two journeys crossing paths: Helen really learning how to be a best friend, and Martha realizing things are happening and finding her voice,” Ms. Reyes-How said. “Sometimes, you need to speak up for yourself and say, ‘This isn’t okay.’”
The students walk away with that message, Mr. Sparks said, especially after having read the book series or watched the television show in class, as is common with many of the schools the troupe visits, he said.
“They end the unit with our show and the kids get to see all their favorite characters come to life on stage,” he said last week during a telephone interview. “And so they light up and they’re screaming with laughter and loving it and bouncing up and down by the end of the show.”
Without fail, Mr. Sparks said he also leaves every theater with a smile on his face, no matter his mood walking in, he said.
“Being on a national tour in a new town every day and a new school every day and a new hotel pretty much every day, and traveling in a six-passenger van with three in the front, three in the back, that mood can vary,” he laughed, “just a little bit. And our calls are very early. But every single time we do the show, I’m in a great mood by the end.”
Set to “beautiful, beautiful music,” Mr. Sparks said, Martha fights for her rights while walking the line between dog and human, according to Ms. Gabrielle. The actress has mastered scratching her ears while wagging the tail of her golden jumpsuit costume, she said, which allows her younger audiences to suspend their disbelief while taking in the theater experience.
Being on stage is a concept she experienced as a very young girl, Ms. Gabrielle said. Age 3, to be exact.
“My mom directed plays and, at that time, having a babysitter every night is expensive,” she said. “So she would bring me to rehearsal and I learned everyone’s lines and convinced myself that I was gong to be the lead. I decided I wanted to do this.”
One year later, Ms. Gabrielle’s first audition was for “Pippin,” to be staged by a community theater group in San Antonio. The budding actress was cast as Theo, she said. And since age 4, she has never looked back.
Theatreworks will stage “Martha Speaks” on Saturday, May 11, at 11 a.m. at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, in partnership with the Children’s Museum of the East End. Tickets are $15, or $20 the day of the event. A limited number of “Martha & Munchies” tickets, which include VIP seating and lunch, are available for $50. Ten “Meet Martha” tickets, which include VIP seating, lunch, a backstage tour and photo with the cast, are available for $100. Proceeds benefit Bay Street Theatre and CMEE. For more information, call 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.