REVIEW: Bunnicula at Columbia Children's Theatre by Melissa Ellington

Bunnicula-Poster-THUMB-231x300 Hop on over to Columbia Children’s Theatre and enjoy Bunnicula, a musical based on the book by Deborah and James Howe. Adapted for the stage by Jon Klein with lyrics by Klein and music by Chris Jeffries, Bunnicula explores the intriguing tale of a mysterious rabbit adopted by an unsuspecting family of four. Their canny feline, however, is suspicious of Bunnicula and uses literary knowledge to convince the family dog that this cute little bunny with the glowing red eyes is actually….a vampire! Why else would the vegetables in the fridge suddenly be drained of their juice? The animals prove to be entertaining sleuths as family life unfolds around their humorous investigation of Bunnicula. My first grade daughter gleefully describes Bunnicula as “very scary…and very funny!”

The performers present an appealing world with gullible yet likeable people and more sophisticated (while still charmingly flawed) animals. In the central roles of Harold (the dog) and Chester (the cat), Jerry Stevenson and Paul Lindley II deliver standout performances as a crowd-pleasing duo with resonant voices. Stevenson’s winning charisma as Harold draws the audience right into the heart of the show. Anyone who has spent time with a disdainful cat will recognize the feline temperament in Lindley’s superb depiction of the persnickety Chester.

Matthew Wright handles the puppeteer responsibilities for Bunnicula with seamless fluidity and impressive agility. Julian Deleon and Toni V. Moore generate strong stage presence as Mr. and Mrs. Monroe, grounding the wilder plot twists with a comforting sense of parental security. Riley Smith (Pete Monroe) and Kate Chalfant (Toby Monroe) convey youth and innocence without becoming overly cloying. Understudies include Kaitlyn Fuller (Harold), Anthony Harvey (Chester), and Taylor Diveley (Mr. Monroe).

For this show to work well, audiences need to root for both the animals and the humans, and the CCT team does an admirable job of making this happen. Crystal Aldamuy’s choreography works effectively to create visual interest and enhance characterization, while Lindley provides adept music direction for the show’s engaging musical numbers. Rest assured that the play’s humor reaches across generations, with slapstick hilarity alongside clever wordplay. You won’t want to miss seeing that “celery stalk,” among numerous other priceless moments.

CCT first produced Bunnicula in 2009, and director Stevenson explains that this production recreates and further develops the previous show’s style, which establishes “everything in a grayscale ‘film noir’ setting except for the cat and dog.” Through their approach to conveying the animals’ perspective, the production team crafts a memorable world where scenic and costume design choices enrich the audience experience of character and plot. The accomplished production staff includes costumers Donna Harvey and Stevenson, scenic designers Jim Litzinger and Stevenson, stage manager Brandi Smith, original puppet builder John Riddle, and the (delightfully named) “puppet medic” Anthony Harvey. Sound and lighting punctuate key moments with clarity as executed by Smith and Litzinger. The beautifully realized design elements communicate dramatic information while connecting with the audience, and viewers of all ages will enjoy reaping the benefits of this noteworthy achievement.

Bunnicula is at once both magical and recognizable. Children are swept up with the fantastic intrigue of the plot while also relating to real life experiences: caring for a pet, navigating family life, being afraid, getting in trouble, looking for answers. High quality children’s theatre in our own community? Seems magical to me…and I sure am glad it’s a reality.