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Diversionary Theatre has always embraced risk. Still, producing a world-premiere
kid-friendly musical seems like a high-wire walk over Niagara Falls for the theater,
which presents often-edgy plays with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender
Diversionary took additional chances assembling a homegrown creative
team. Patricia Loughrey, an award-winner author of educational plays, was new
to musical theater and had never worked with composer Rayme Sciaroni. And the show they wrote, “The Daddy Machine,” about the children of a lesbian couple who make a machine that produces fathers, required child performers who could not only act but carry solo songs. That alone could have been a recipe for disaster.

The Daddy Machine” premiered on Saturday, and Diversionary's sparkling high-wire act rivals the Flying Wallendas. In Loughrey's clever script, a lot of the humor stays broad enough for children (for instance, a slapstick bit where four of the dads run wild in wacky costumes) but there are also witty references to crack up adults. Sciaroni's bouncy tunes and nimble lyrics got this mature viewer happily joining the kids in sing-alongs. Only one song, “A Little Blessing,” strayed into treacle. Well-paced direction by Sciaroni and Siobhan Sullivan kept young viewers from squirming during the hour-long show. The kids even get a chance to come onstage, don silly hats and emerge through the “daddy machine” (an appliance box).

Loughrey adapted “The Daddy Machine” from a picture book of the same name by Johnny Valentine and added the inspired touch of the family dog, Stonewall, an actor in a floppy-eared cap with a “tail” sticking out behind, who acts as a sort of emcee. Played with engaging goofiness and a pleasing voice by Jacob Caltrider – in what the program describes, remarkably, as his first paid acting job – Stonewall sets up the spirit of fun with an opening song expressing his delight in his squeaky toys and family of “two kids and me, two moms and a couch. . . . It's all good.”

The children are brainy 13-year-old Sue and impulsive 8-year-old Harry, whose lust for pancakes is thwarted when one mom loses a filling and the other rushes her to the dentist. Dads make pancakes, Harry declares in wistful song – “one dad, one boy and a stack of pancakes, a perfect team.” Meanwhile, Sue is googling “fathers,” and suddenly Dad No. 1 (Andy Collins) steps out of the appliance box bearing a spatula and a foot-high stack of pancakes. Dad No. 2 (Sven Salumaa) soon follows, and the “Daddy Machine” keeps spitting them out, with four actors and the briefly appearing audience recruits. Sue ultimately laments being in “a household full of jocks” in the song “Sixty-Two Dads.”

On Saturday, Lirenza Gillette and Max Oilman-Williams played Sue and Harry (they alternate with Haley Heidemann and Benjamin Shaffer), and they're both troupers. Gillette brought deadpan hilarity to “Sixty-Two Dads,” wearing a white boa and red cowboy hat, her clear voice unfaltering as a playful dad dangled her upside-down. Susan Hammons and Krista Page take dual roles as the moms and Dads No. 3 and No. 4, joining Collins and Salumaa in a doo-wop paean to “The Art of Making Pancakes,” the lyrics tickling young viewers with threats to add special ingredients like liverwurst and anchovies.

Production details show impeccable care. Costumer Shelly Williams must have had a blast creating the dads' silly dress-up duds, and scenic designer Christian Lopez fills the family living room with a kid-appealing palette of orange, green and purple and accents of polka dots; a “wall” to one side disguises the back of accompanist Tim McKnight's piano. Along with performances at San Diego State University and Cal State Long Beach, “The Daddy Machine” has been booked for R Family Vacations' March cruise. (The company, co-directed by Rosie O'Donnell's partner, Kelli O'Donnell, focuses on gay and lesbian travelers and their families.)
Those engagements promise to be the start of a long life beyond San Diego for a show that does just about everything right.

Janice Steinberg is a San Diego arts writer.