"Knuffle Bunny - A Cautionary Musical" - Alex Smith reviews the new play at Columbia Children's Theatre

Mo Willems is something of a rock star if you’re a kid between the ages of 4 and 11 (or even if you’re just the parent of a kid that age.)  His career in children’s entertainment began illustriously on Sesame Street, where as an animator and writer he won six Emmy awards between 1993 and 2002.  During that time he also created two animated television series, The Off-Beats and Sheep In The Big City.  Since 2003, he has been a wildly successful author of children’s books, introducing the world to such immortal characters as Cat the CatPiggie and Elephant, Edwina, The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, Leonardo The Terrible Monster, Naked Mole Rat and Big Frog.   His lovely illustrations and easy storytelling simultaneously create tales whose worlds are complex and self-contained, yet are wrought in such a simple way that the lessons they teach are so subtle that you don’t feel like you’re being beaten over the head with them.   Above all his writing and his drawings are VERY funny, making them a joy for both children and adults. All of the same qualities which make Willems’ books so appealing are on full display in the Columbia Children’s Theatre’s musical staging of Knuffle Bunny, subtitled A Cautionary Musical.  With book and lyrics by Willems and music by Michael Silversher, this adaptation of the Caldecott Medal-winning adventures of the beloved stuffed animal of the title, Trixie (the toddler who loves the bunny), and Trixie’s Mom and Dad, is staged as confidently as ever by director Chad Henderson, whose genre-defying talent as a theatrical director shines in this family-friendly production.   Henderson, as usual, has brought together a cast and crew whose talent coalesces to create a brisk, wonderfully entertaining evening in the theatre for children and their grown-ups alike.

This "cautionary tale" is straightforward enough: Dad, in an attempt to give Mom some time to herself, decides to take their daughter Trixie to the laundromat a few blocks from their home in the big city.  Trixie drags along her favorite stuffed animal, Knuffle Bunny. In the process of laundering the family’s clothes, Knuffle Bunny is accidentally put in the washing machine, and not until they return home between cycles does Dad realize what Trixie (who hasn’t learned to speak yet) has been trying to tell him throughout their journey home: Knuffle Bunny has been left behind. Mom, Dad and Trixie all rush back to the laundromat, where Dad embarks on a hero’s journey to recover Trixie’s missing doll. To say that hilarity ensues would cheat all of the above described action of how wildly entertaining and very funny it is.

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Mom and Dad are expertly played by Kathy Sykes and Paul Lindley II, respectively. They are portraying archetypes, which can easily be overplayed and stereotypical in lesser hands, but as Mom, Ms. Sykes conveys all the frustration, patience, nurturing and love which mothers exercise with their children (and, often, with the fathers of their children) in such a sincere and earthy way that we laugh at and with her because of the familiarity her portrayal evokes. Lindley as Dad is all bluster and bravado which mask his genuine sensitivity and insecurities about his ability as a parent and a spouse; in other words, he is every dad.  Lindley, in addition to serving as the show's musical director, is a comic actor of immense talent (he was side-splitting as "Snail" in CCT's recent staging of Frog and Toad), and in his hands Dad is the perfect over-serious, overwrought and over-compensating foil to Ms. Sykes’ “straight-man” mom. Their performances, individually and as that archetypal institution of “mom and dad,” are worth the price of admission alone.

And then there’s Trixie. Having an adult play a child onstage is another dangerous proposition: the temptation to over- or under-play the impossibly endless and variant characterizations which make up the earliest eras of childhood make the task a difficult one for any actor...or, as one of the show's songs explains, "Trixie Is Tricky".  Hats off, then, to Sara Jackson, who embodies the pre-verbal toddler Trixie with all of the requisite foibles of a child that age without ever falling into the easy traps of being too cutesy or commenting on them.  The strength of Ms. Jackson's performance lies in the fact that despite the fact that, for instance, the role calls upon her to do something as outlandish as speak for 95% of the play in incomprehensible toddler-speak, she takes Trixie as seriously as an actor would take any adult role. This not only makes her character completely clear and interesting, it allows her to nearly bring down the house with laughter when she delivers, with straight-faced sincerity, a ballad about her troubles whose lyrics consist of no recognizable human language. It is a high point of the show.

There are so many other elements which make Knuffle Bunny such an excellent show: the hard work of a fine ensemble of actor/puppeteers (Julian Deleon, Anthony Harvey, Brandi Smith and Christina Whitehouse-Suggs) who play multiple roles and are particularly wonderful in a scene where Dad does battle with some troublesome clothes in an attempt to find Knuffle Bunny; Donna Harvey's costume and puppet design which ably bring those troublesome clothes, Knuffle Bunny, and all the other characters, animate or not, to colorful life; Baxter Engle's superb projections, which build upon Willems' own layout in the Knuffle Bunny books, creating a living backdrop out of actual photographs of New York city and otherwise broadening the staging possibilities in the Children's Theatre's modest space (this may be the first production in Columbia to stage a musical number inside a washing machine); and, of course, a cameo appearance by Willems' other Caldecott Honoree, the troublesome Pigeon - in the form of an excellent marionette, designed and built by Lyon Hill - who in the play's final moments literally "steals the show," and opens up the welcome possibility that this may not be the end of Knuffle Bunny's stage adventures...

The Columbia Children's Theatre's top-notch production of Knuffle Bunny is so well-crafted and performed, that it makes the prospect of further musical journeys with Mom, Dad, Trixie and Knuffle Bunny a tantalizing prospect indeed. It is the best kind of family entertainment around, and it should not be missed.

~ Alex Smith

Knuffle Bunny - A Cautionary Musical runs Friday, April 19th at 7:00 PM, Saturday, April 20th at 10:30 AM, 2:00 PM, and 7:00 PM, and a final matinee Sunday, April 21st, at 3:00 PM.  For ticket in formation, visit their website, or call (803) 691-4548.

An Ode to Toad, and a Dialogue with Frog: "A Year with Frog and Toad" - a Ribbiting Production at Columbia Children’s Theatre! Plus: the return of celebrity guest blogger Kat Bjorn (age 5)

If you only have time to read the first paragraph, let me make this simple:  unless you are the bride and groom in a wedding, or have the misfortune of attending your own funeral these next two weekends, move whatever scheduling mountains you must — no matter your age — to attend A Year with Frog and Toad at Columbia Children’s Theatre. Frog and Toad are sacred characters who define our contemporary storytelling selves, not just for children, but for parents and anyone else who later in life relearns the critical import of children’s tales.  Arnold Lobel’s kinetic Frog and sourpuss Toad, and their whimsical, parable adventures, have become for millions of readers a canonical definition of storybook friendship — perhaps no less important than Gilgamesh and Enkidu, only with a wee biteen more emphasis on tea and cookies.

Thus, one has to imagine that any children’s theatre approaches the staging of the groundbreaking 2003 musical adaptation of nine priceless vignettes from Lobel’s four Frog and Toad books with the gravitas of a classical company staging King Lear.  (For those unaware, the musical, commissioned by Lobel’s daughter, cracked the mainstream Broadway barrier after initial successful runs in Minneapolis and Off-Broadway.)  Indeed, this production was enough to draw Artistic Director Jerry Stevenson out from under the lily pads and onto the stage for his first main role since co-founding Columbia Children’s Theatre.  This alone is cause for celebration, as Stevenson nails every warty jot and tittle of Toad’s reluctant, crepe-hanger personality.  Given the adult audience members’ uniform delight in Stevenson’s performance, one sincerely hopes that he will consider lending his comedic and singing talents to other roles about town in the years to come.

One simply cannot heap enough praise onto the entire cast and crew for possibly pulling off the best children’s show in the history of our famously hot town, and the show I have most enjoyed attending since the legendary production of Ragtime at Workshop nearly a decade ago.  I still feel the warmth of theatrical mirth hours after the curtains closed, and I am sincerely jealous that my daughter, Kat (see interview with cast below), will have the opportunity to attend a second performance with her school next week.

Of particular thespian note, one must congratulate veteran children’s theatre actor Lee O. Smith for a frolicking, amphibian performance as Frog that seems to have been plucked from a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope “Road to” film.  Also, Elizabeth Stepp again demonstrates requisite talent in anthropomorphic animal roles, in particular as the crocheted-Mohawk Lizard; she brings such animation to her characters that at times one finds her nearly a full time zone ahead of anyone else on stage.  Finally, Paul Lindley II and his crisp voice nearly bring the show to a halt — literally — as the postal-laden Snail, who, inch by inch throughout, ties together all of the separate narrative threads.

While the Columbia Children’s Theatre stage itself may be humble (yet deserving of ‘amphi’-theatrical size), the company’s creative team really has outdone itself.  Jim Litzinger’s daisy-and-cattail, woodsy stage truly brings the storybook backdrop to life.  But the success of any show with animal characters hangs in the creative balance of its costumes, and the team of Stevenson and Donna Harvey seems to have raided with abandon Plato’s World of Forms for an abundance of imaginative ideas, from Frog and Toad’s outrageous argyle socks, to Turtle’s straw hat shell, to the umbrella puppets in the ghost story vignette, “Shivers.”  Then there’s Toad’s bathing suit, which out of respect for his metamorphic modesty, I shan’t discuss.

One final shout out is deserving of local face-painting artist, Sarah Dippity, who donated her time on opening night to turning dozens of kiddy faces into a colorful collage of butterflies, Darth Mauls, princesses, and Iron Man masks.

A reviewer knows that he cannot cash the following chip lightly:  I really cannot think of a time I have enjoyed myself more in a Columbia theatre.  More importantly, I know that my five-year-old daughter and dozens of other children on Friday night felt precisely the same way.

One final word:  Go.  Or as Snail might put it:  Escargot.

~ Arik Bjorn

Kat Bjorn’s Interview with Frog & Toad

 

KB:  Why is it “frog and toad” and not “toad and frog”?

Toad:  Alphabetical order.  I’m pretty sure “F” comes before “T.”

[cast sings “the alphabet song” in somewhat accurate fashion—amazingly so, in fact, for a group of minimally-educated woodland creatures.]

KB:  I picked up a toad once, and it felt lumpy-bumpy.  Toad, are you lumpy-bumpy?

Toad:  Definitely.  Definitely lumpy-bumpy.

KB:  How did you come up with your Frog voice and your Toad voice?

Toad:  That is my default Cowardly Lion voice.

Frog:  I obsessively watched the TV show “Frasier.”

KB:  [coughs]  What’s it like to be amphibians?

Toad:  It’s very convenient when traveling.

Frog:  Absolutely.  Over land and water.  Very handy.

KB:  In the story “Cookies,” we don’t know what kind of cookies they are.  Are they bug and fly cookies?

Bird:  The song is very clear.  They are Marvelous Cookies.

Snail:  With a touch of honeysuckle nectar, I think.

Lizard:  And mealworms.  Ooh, yeah.  Yum, yum.  Mealworms.

KB:  That is disgusting.  Next question.  In the story “Spring,” why did Frog trick Toad with the calendar pages?

Frog:  What?!  I didn’t trick him!

KB:  [coughs; clears throat]  Yes you did!  And you threw it in the fireplace!

Toad:  You tricked me, Frog?!  You owe me a calendar.  I’m not speaking to you again.

KB:  In the story “A Swim,” how does a turtle sound when it laughs?  Turtles don’t make sounds!

[cast is stumped.  sound of non-equity crickets.]

KB:  In the story “The Letter,” why didn’t Frog just deliver the letter himself instead of giving it to Snail?

Toad:  We were in desperate need of an 11 o’clock number.

Snail:  And I delivered!

KB:  [coughs]  Last question.  Have Frog and Toad known each other since they were tadpoles?

Toad:  [points to a portrait on the wall]  We’re related, actually.  Those are our ancestors in the painting “American Frog-thic.”

Frog:  Say, that’s quite the cough you have there, kid.

KB:  I know.  I have a frog in my throat.

Frog and Toad runs February 8-17 with performances at the following dates and time:  Friday, February 8 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, February 9 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, February 10 at 3 p.m.; Friday, February 15 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, February 16 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; and Sunday, February 17 at 3 p.m.  Tickets are $8 for adult and children 3 and up.  The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located at the Second Level of Richland Mall, 3400 Forest Drive (corner of Beltline and Forest Drive).  Enter the Second Level parking garage walkway and park in Level 2-L for easy access.  Call 691.4548 for more information or to reserve tickets for groups of 10 or more.  To learn more about Columbia Children’s Theatre , visit http://columbiachildrenstheatre.com/ .

Marauding Zombies, Playful Amphibians, and That Mofo With the Hat - What to See on Stage This Weekend

George Romero's low-budget, cult hit from 1968, Night of the Living Dead, was the granddaddy of all modern zombie stories. Zombies had been around before, but were usually depicted as corpses animated by some controlling voodoo master. Romero took the basic idea of hordes of the undead from Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, made them less vampires and more corpse-like, yet still eager to chomp your flesh and turn you into one of them, and his world-view of a zombie apocalypse took off, influencing everything from the Resident Evil and Silent Hill video games, to director John Landis's classic video for the Michael Jackson song "Thriller," to the current hit comic book and cable tv series The Walking Dead. We're still fond of this exchange from the Joss Whedon-produced series Angel, written by Steven S. DeKnight (now the show-runner for Spartacus) : CONNOR (Angel's mortal son, who hates him): He looks dead.

ANGEL (the "good" vampire with a soul) : He is dead. Technically, it's undead. It's a zombie.

CONNOR: What's a zombie?

ANGEL: It's an undead thing.

CONNOR: Like you?

ANGEL: No, zombies are slow-moving, dimwitted things that crave human flesh.

CONNOR: Like you.

ANGEL: No! It's different. Trust me.

Zombies are all the rage in Columbia too, with an annual Zombie Walk (Crawl? Lurch?) each Hallowe'en. High Voltage Theatre is currently producing a stage adaptation of the original Romero film, running this weekend and the next, Friday and Saturday nights, through Sat. Feb. 15th, at the Tapp's Art Center on Main Street. For information or reservations, call: 803-754-5244. And you can read a review at the Free Times.

Over at Richland Mall in Forest Acres, Columbia Children's Theatre is opening their new production of A Year With Frog and Toad, the Tony-nominated (seriously!) musical by Robert and Willie Reale, based on Arnold Lobel's series of children's books. The cast includes local favorites such as Jerry Stevenson, Lee O. Smith, Bobby Bloom, Sara Jackson, Paul Lindley II (doubling as musical director) Toni Moore, and Elizabeth Stepp (who also choreographs.)

From press material:

Arnold Lobel's well-loved characters hop from the page to the stage in A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD, the Theatre of Young Audiences version of Tony-nominated musical. This whimsical show follows two great friends -- the cheerful, popular Frog and the rather grumpy Toad -- through four, fun-filled seasons. Waking from hibernation in the Spring, Frog and Toad plant gardens, swim, rake leaves, go sledding, and learn life lessons along the way. The two best friends celebrate and rejoice in their differences that make them unique and special. Part vaudeville, part make believe, all charm, A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD tells the story of a friendship that endures, weathering all seasons.

The show runs through Sun. Feb. 17th; contact the box office at (803) 691-4548 for information.

Meanwhile, down in the Vista, Trustus Theatre opens Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherf@*#&er With the Hat, directed by Chad Henderson, with a score by Preach Jacobs, scenic design by Kimi Maeda, and featuring Alexis Casanovas, Shane Silman, Raia Jane Hirsch, Michelle Jacobs, and Joe Morales.

From press material:

ADULTS ONLY PLEASE: language, nudity, sexual situations, & violence

"This sexy and modern show was nominated for Tony Awards, Drama League Awards, Outer Critics Circle Awards, and Drama Desk Awards – TRUST US, it’s more than the title that’s provocative about this show."

Struggles with addiction, friendship, love and the challenges of adulthood are at the center of the story. Jackie, a petty drug dealer, is just out of prison and trying to stay clean. He's also still in love with his coke-addicted childhood sweetheart, Veronica. Ralph D. is Jackie's too-smooth, slightly slippery sponsor. He's married to the bitter and disaffected Victoria, who, by the way, has the hots for Jackie. And then there's Julio, Jackie's cousin … a stand-up, "stand by me" kind of guy. However, when Jackie comes home with flowers to find a strange man’s hat by his and Veronica’s bed, these characters careen forward as Jackie goes in search of the hat’s owner. What follows is an examination of trust, lust, loyalty, and true love.

You can read an interview with director Chad Henderson here.  Contact the box office at (803) 254-9732 for ticket information.