POLKA DOTS: A Musical About Segregation

Polka Dots: The Cool Kids Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, RVA 23230

Performances: July 12 – August 11, 2019

Ticket Prices: $21

Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org

Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical is based on the real-life events of the Little Rock Nine. In 1957 nine black students enrolled in the formerly all-white Little Rock Central High School, a test of the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. For Polkadots, Melvin Tunstall, III (book) has set the  story in Rockaway elementary school, in an undetermined state. Instead of black and white, the tension takes place between the blue skinned squares and the pink skinned polkadots. The squares believe they are the superior group, and don’t want to share their school or their town with polkadots.

Eight-year-old Lily Polkadot, played by Caroline Lynch, is the first polkadot to integrate the school, and the plot revolves around Lily’s efforts to make a friend and assimilate into her new school. Serious and sensitive issues are handled with care under the gentle direction of Jan Guarino.

Lily puts up a brave front, standing up to the mean spirited Penelope Square, singing “Sticks and Stones” as an affirmation, but she still privately wishes her skin was covered with squares instead of polkadots. The children’s teacher, Ms. Square, played by Sydnee Graves, who also plays the role of Mama Square, is warm, friendly and accepting of Lily, but at the same time she doesn’t want to make waves.

On the first day of school, Lily must remain alone in the classroom during the bathroom and water break because the polkadots’ water pump has not yet been installed, and Lily must not drink from the squares’ water sprinkler. A separate water fountain is eventually rolled out for Lily, and this marks one of many times I wondered just how much the younger members of the audience really understood the historical significance of what was taking place.

This was one of the few times I did not have my grandsons Kingston (10) and Emmitt (who just turned 5) along to consult with. As a matter of fact, the volunteer ticket taker took one look at me and asked, “Where’s your grandson?” I almost felt like some sort of pervert attending the Children’s Theatre without a child or two in tow, and I really would like to know what they would have taken away from this show.

Interesting, the cast, including Quan Chau as Sky Square, Sydnee Graves as Ms. Square/Mama Square, Caroline Lynch as Lily Polkadot, and Madeleine Witmer as Penelope Square is quite diverse (white, black, Asian), and all are making their debuts at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn. The quartet was uniformly energetic, and all boast strong singing voices. Douglas Lyons’ lyrics are surprisingly sophisticated for a children’s show – more throaty ballads than bouncy ditties and the music by Greg Borowsky and Lyons provides a firm foundation for Mallory Keene’s choreography. There is even one number, where Sky and Lily create a silly dance, the Squa-Dot, that invites audience participation, but on Friday night, although there was one enthusiastic row of youthful audience members bouncing in their seats, no one was brave enough to stand up and join in the dance.

Graves was almost annoyingly prim and proper in her role as the teacher and seemed like an authentic school counselor when she shared with Lily her own trials as the first “lady teacher” at their school. Witmer was almost satisfyingly snarky as the mean girl big sister, and was visibly disappointed when her big song, “Cool Kid,” which was meant as a put-down for Lily missed the mark, because Lily wasn’t in the audience to hear it. Chau was adorable as little brother, Sky, and Lynch was perfectly cast as the spunky yet vulnerable Lily.

Kyle Artone’s costumes are colorful and cartoonish, and the square women’s full-skirted dresses, stretched over stiff and puffy crinolines, are especially pretty. Lily’s dress is simpler and less elaborate than the dresses of the squares. I found the pink and blue skin (part fabric and part makeup) and cotton candy colored hair a bit creepy, but it didn’t seem to bother the younger members of the audience.

Emily Hake Massie’s set was surprisingly simple. A huge square platform in the center of the stage served as Penelope’s bed, Ms. Square’s classroom, and Mama Square’s dining table. Cubes served as props and seating and doubled as steps to allow the performers access to sit and dance atop the square platform. Lynne Hartman’s lighting was also minimal, with a few special effects that highlighted the segregated fountains.

Unlike in real life, there is a happy ending, with everyone becoming friends – or at least, agreeing to live and work together – but as a lesson, it’s a start. Looking around at the faces of the children in the audience, mostly 6-10 years old, they appeared to be having a good time, but it would take a post-performance discussion to determine how much they actually learned.

Polkadots: The Cook Kids Musical runs just under an hour, with no intermission, and will be playing at The Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn through August e.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Madeleine Witmer. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Quan Chau, Caroline Lynch. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Madeleine Witmer, Sydnee Graves, Quan Chau. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Caroline Lynch, Quan Chau, Madeleine Witmer, Sydnee Graves. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Caroline Lynch. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

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PINOCCHIO: Bright and Shining Son

Pinocchio: The Nose Knows

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis (with input from Emmitt, Kingston & Soleil)

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, RVA 23230

Performances: Mach 29 – May 5, 2019

Ticket Prices: $21

Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org

The third production of the Virginia Rep Children’s season at Willow Lawn is the children’s classic Pinocchio. I’m glad I usually take children with me to these shows, because our perspectives are often vastly different.

First, a disclaimer. I am truly glad that Pinocchio is played by a real person, Bridget Sindelar, who last appeared on this stage as Ginny/Little Blue in The Little Engine That Could. I find articulated marionettes creepy – almost as creepy as ventriloquist dummies. Sindelar adopted a herky jerky walk, like a windup toy about to wind down, with uplifted elbows to mimic the posture of a marionette.

Sunday afternoon found a nearly full house for this show, with book, lyrics, and direction by Bruce Craig Miller, who will soon start his new job as head of the Chesterfield Cultural Arts Foundation. Running a little under one hour with no intermission, Pinocchio is recommended for ages 4 and up, and that seems about right. There were a few criers in the audience, but most of the young attendees were enthralled. My 4-year-old grandson Emmitt was fully attentive. As always, he is especially fond of the musical numbers. His favorite was “The Eating Song.”

When asked which characters he liked the most, his first response was the Blue Fairy (played by Renee McGowan) but then he changed it to Pinocchio. He also did not hesitate to let his mom know that he did not like the scene where Pinocchio got tied up with a noose. (It might have been around that time that he moved from his seat to her lap.) The set, by Terrie Powers, also caught his attention, “It looks like a real city,” he said in unsolicited awe shortly after we took our seats.

Kingston, at 10, is the more seasoned theater-goer, but he liked the entire show, especially Tevin Davis as the Fox and Eve Marie Tuck as the Cat. He did not have any problem with the rope scene or even with what I saw as totally improbable, illogical, and unsubstantiated scenes and events. Their mom, Soleil, who between the ages of 7-17 spent more time on stages than in theater seats, acknowledged the inconsistencies, but was most struck that this version of Pinocchio reminded her of the book of classic fairy tales her father and I had bought for her and her siblings. One scene she reminisced about was the scene where Pinocchio and his father Geppetto are reunit4ed in the belly of a giant dogfish – a scenario I did not remember at all. So, thank you, family, for your input. I appreciate your perspectives, but do not fully agree.

From my perspective, I found Bridget Sindelar charming as Pinocchio, but I was repelled by Pinocchio’s bratty behavior. I, too, was enamored of Tevin Davis’s Fox, a rakish character who seemed to have adopted some of the mannerisms of a 1970s Blaxploitation movie pimp. Geppetto, played by Landon Dufrene, seemed underdeveloped, as was the relationship between Geppetto and Pinocchio. The jump from freshly carved puppet to a runaway puppet to real boy was sudden and lacking in explanation. Okay, I know it’s a fairy tale, so logic isn’t required, but still, it seemed to me as if chunks of the story were missing. This is why I think it’s helpful to attend a children’s show with children – especially if I’m going to write about it. They weren’t bothered by, in fact didn’t even notice, any of the things I found lacking or distracting.

Over all, Miller kept the pacing swift but smooth; the time passed quickly. The cast performed with energy and enthusiasm, often making light contact with the audience, asking a question or pointing to a child or two to include them in the decision making process. I liked the opening, with the actors switching between English and Italian to set the scene – but they dropped that after the opening scene. The costumes by Marcia Miller Halley were quite well done and enhanced the fairy tale atmosphere while complementing Powers’ colorful little village set design.

Pinocchio delighted its intended audience and is largely devoid of the double entendre that so many playwrights cleverly insert into children’s plays, apparently in an attempt to keep the attention of the accompanying adults. Like most good children’s tales, there is an underlying lesson or two. In this case, the messages that are woven throughout are about telling the truth and not being afraid to grow up.

 

Sensory Friendly Performances

A Sensory Friendly family performance will be offered on Saturday, April 27, 2019 at 10:30 a.m. Please see the website for more details: http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html

 

Audio Described Performances

In collaboration with Virginia Voice, Virginia Rep is pleased to offer Audio Described performances, in which actions, expressions and gestures are described during gaps between dialogue throughout the performance for patrons with low vision or blindness. In addition to live audio description during performances, patrons are also invited to participate in a tactile tour before the performance. An Audio Described performance will be offered on Sunday, April 7, 2019 at 2 p.m. Please see the website for more details: https://va-rep.org/access_for_the_blind.html

 

Performance Schedule

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday

Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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HUCK & TOM: Rolling on the River

Huck & Tom: And the Mighty Mississippi

A Theater Review (& some other thoughts) by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, RVA 23230

Performances: January 25 – March 3, 2019

Ticket Prices: Start at $21

Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org

The latest production of the Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn is Huck & Tom and the Mighty Mississippi, a collection of short adventures from Mark Twain’s books about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The production is adapted from the works of Mark Twain, with book and lyrics by Peter Howard, and music and lyrics by Ron Barnett. Colorful and lively, with a few pleasant songs, some period costumes (Becky’s is especially pretty), and creative use of crates to change scenes (the cemetery was quite inspired), this production is recommended for ages 6-12 but is probably best suited for the higher end of this age range, through middle school.

James Hendley and Joel White share good chemistry as Tom and Huck, respectively, with Caitlin Sneed bringing balance as Aunt Polly and Rachel Jones as an adorable Becky. Alvan Bolling II rounds out the cast as Jim.

Throughout the show, which runs just under an hour, with no intermission, characters remind one another and the audience that there isn’t enough time to tell the entire story and encourage audience members to check out the books from their libraries to find out the rest of the story. David Tousley’s set, which includes movable fences, a raft, and the aforementioned crates, includes a background of fencing and gigantic books.

I always like the program for the children’s productions. One side is a frameable poster keepsake, and the other contains all the usual program information. This one includes “Five Fun Facts” about the author and his books, such as Mark Twain’s real name, a nautical term named for Twain, Twain’s early jobs, and some facts about the Mississippi River. In keeping with this theme, I will offer five observations about this production.

One. First, let me defer to my panel of experts: Kingston and Nicole, both age 10, and Emmitt, age 4. Emmitt said he liked “everything” but was not able to offer any details. Kingston and Nicole also said they liked everything, but given that they are in double digits, I couldn’t let them get away with that. Nicole then offered that she found it confusing with one actor just fell down on the floor when the narrator said he’d been shot in the leg. An audible “bang,” she and Kingston agreed, would have made it better. When I asked them how they felt about Huck trying to decide whether to turn in Jim for the runaway slave reward and save himself or to help Jim escape to freedom, neither of them was mature enough to have fully grasped the gravity of the situation. Most of the audience was probably in the 4-10 year age range, so I’m not sure many of them grasped the significance of this dilemma.

Two. Throughout the production, young audience members were urged to read the books for themselves. Most if not all raised their hands when they were asked if they liked to read. I wonder how many of the parents present are aware that these beloved classics are among the most frequently banned books in the USA? Mostly because in the original texts there is liberal use of the word “nigger,” as Jim is referred to as Nigger Jim. Is this something you want to discuss with your elementary school child?

Three. Kingston was able to relate to some of the historical references, remembering that they had been covered in his fourth grade SOLs.  So, kudos for making theater both educational and entertaining, and finding connections with what the kids are learning in school.

Four. Emmitt, age 4, is usually completely enthralled by theater, especially if there is music involved. But this time he was ready to leave about halfway through.

Five. Huck & Tom is a colorful, lively production, with lots of visual interest, movement, and energetic performances by its cast of five, and is well-directed by Kikau Alvaro. Based on my experience, it is best suited for children ten or older, and should be accompanied by sort of discussion. This production is a part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival, and the suggested faith connection is “growing up,” which is linked to the scripture Proverbs 22:6 – “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Depending on the age and maturity of the child, and the personal beliefs of the family, there are so many directions this discussion could take.

 

Sensory Friendly Performances

A Sensory Friendly family performance will be offered on Saturday, February 16 at 10:30 a.m. Please see the website for more details: http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html

Performance Schedule

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday

Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Acts of Faith logo

Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
Rachel Jones. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
James Hendley, center. Alvan Bolling II, Caitlin Sneed, left. Rachel Jones, right. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
Alvan Bolling II and Joel White. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
Joel White, Alvan Bolling II, Caitlin Sneed, Rachel Jones, and James Hendley. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

THE LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA: 18 Years Strong

THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA 2019

A Dance Review and Related Thoughts by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Road, Glen Allen, VA, 23192

Performance Were: January 10-13, 2019

Ticket Prices Were: $10 – $20

Info: (804) 356- 3876 or http://www.latinballet.com

This won’t be the first time I’ve said that The Latin Ballet of Virginia’s annual production of The Legend of the Poinsettia has become, for many, a new or alternative holiday tradition. But this year I had the pleasure of introducing the production to ten people, children and adults, who had never before seen it. Everyone I had a chance to speak to during intermission or after the show was enthralled by the variety and range of the dancing, the colorful costumes, and the energy of the music and dancing. One mother said she had a hard time following the story, which is told in Spanish and English, mostly Spanish, but I suggested she read her program later – it explains pretty much everything, much like the synopsis of an opera.

This year the fickle Richmond winter weather caused some concern, with a wintry mix of snow, sleet, and rain predicted around the time of the two Saturday performances and the Sunday matinee. The company generously offered to allow people who had made reservations for Sunday afternoon to exchange their tickets for one of the two Saturday performances. The Saturday matinee seemed to be a full house, and snow flurries were swirling around the parking lot of the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen as we made our way out after the show and the cast prepared for the evening show.  As of this writing, the weather seemed to be kind enough to allow the Sunday matinee to go on as planned.

The Legend of the Poinsettia tells the story of Little Maria (with Rebeca Dora Barragán and Emery Velasquez alternating in the role), who, after the sudden death of her mother, with whom she was weaving a colorful blanket, finds herself in need of a gift to present to the Baby Jesus on Epiphany Day. January 6 is Three King’s Day or Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos, which celebrates the 12th day of Christmas and the legend of the three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Christ Child. So, for those who did not take down their Christmas trees on January 1, just say you were waiting to celebrate Epiphany! It is also the story of “the true spirit of giving,” as well as a cultural history of how the poinsettia came to be a symbol of Christmas.

The Legend of the Poinsettia is a family-friendly, multi-cultural, multi-generational festival featuring the dances, music, and costumes of Mexico (the origin of the legend and of the poinsettia plant, with Micas de Aguinalda or Christmas Masses and nine days of posadas leading up to Christmas, with reenactments of the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph), Colombia (King’s birthplace, which also celebrates the nine nights before Christmas with las novenas including songs, prayers, and nativity scenes), Venezuela (the home of the gaitas or festive songs that blend the Spanish and African cultures), the Dominican Republic (home of the bachata, a mixture of Cuban bolero and son), Puerto Rico (home of the Christmas parrandas or musical festivities) and Spain (home of flamenco and the Christmas novenas). A blend of solemn candle lighting and prayers with festive singing and dancing is the common thread that ties together the many cultures and traditions, concluding with the miracle of the poinsettia plant, represented by dancers in red and green.

This year’s cast included new and familiar faces. Young Marisol Betancourt Sotolongo has appeared in all eighteen productions. Antonio Hidalgo Paz, of Spain, and artistic director of Flamenco Vivo, has become a staple figure, partnering King in a flamenco duet and taking on the role of Papa. Frances Wessells, Professor Emerita of VCUDance appeared in her recurring role as Abuelita/the grandmother. She was greeted with cheers of “go Frances, go Frances,” in deference to her still performing at the age of 99! One of my students was most impressed by the energy or “hype” of the men: Roberto Whitaker, Jay Williams, Glen Lewis, Nicolás Guillen Betancourt Sotolongo, and DeShon Rollins.

There are daytime school productions and a weekend of family shows, but if you missed them all, keep your eyes open for next year’s production. It’s a must see.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Photos from Latin Ballet Facebook page.

THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL: A Creatively Inclusive Take on a Classic

THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL: Classic Meet Inclusion

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Whistle Stop Theatre Company at The Hanover Arts & Activity Center, 500 South Center Street, Ashland, VA 23005

Performances: December 1, 7, 14 & 15, 2018

Ticket Price: $10

Info: https://whistlestoptheatre.weebly.com/ or email whistletoptheatre@gmail.com with any questions or concerns. The Whistle Stop Theatre Company does not have a phone number.

The holiday season, spanning Halloween through New Year’s Day (or even through Three Kings Day in January) is often seen as a time for traditions. Families get together and reminisce, pull out old photos, resurrect games and decorations and recipes from previous generations. For some, it means an annual trip to see The Nutcracker or a marathon showing of A Christmas Story (which is now considered politically incorrect).

Richmond’s theater community has many holiday offerings, ranging from the adults-only Who’s Holiday with a grown-up Cindy Lou Who at RTP to the wacky whodunit The Game’s Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays at Hanover Tavern and the trailer park trashiness of A Doublewide, Texas Christmas at CAT. There’s also A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, and the very intense A Doll’s House (which is not a Christmas story but does have a Christmas tree in it) at The Basement. (My apologies if I omitted any shows from this informal and unofficial list!)

For family oriented entertainment, there’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins at VaRep at Willow Lawn, which my 4- and 10-year-old grandsons enjoyed. On Friday, December 14, 2018, I made my way out to Ashland, VA (aka “the Center of the Universe”) for my first experience with the Whistle Stop Theatre Company, whose director, Louise Ricks, has fashioned an inclusive version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Little Match Girl. Like many classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, Andersen’s story is rather gruesome and graphic in the details of a young girl selling matches to help support her family. It’s cold, and she has only a thin wrap and a pair of slippers that belonged to her late grandmother are a poor substitute for boots or proper shoes. Even these are taken from her and she has no luck selling matches to the hurried and preoccupied townspeople who brush past her as she called out New Year’s greetings. In the end, she dies. Before the end, however, she strikes her matches to provide a bit of comfort for herself and her only friend – a cat named Gerda. “You’re not mangy,” The Little Match Girl assures her companion, “You’re. . .unkempt!” The glow of the fire illuminates her dying visions.

But Ricks has taken these moments and expanded them to include tales from other cultures, providing levity, insight, empathy, morality, hope, and cultural inclusion. There’s “The Uninvited Guest” (Jewish folktale for Hanukkah), “Babushka” (a Russian tale about the Three Wise Men), and “Uwungalama” (a South African folktale about a magical tree that provides unending fruit). So, there’s acknowledgement of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s and even Three Kings Day, all in one play that runs about 45 minutes.

Set in the round, using only a square platform and three black boxes, The Little Match Girl intimate and as much a night of storytelling as it is theater. The cast consists of a multi-generational, multi-ethnic ensemble of nine, most of whom play multiple roles. Sweet and natural, Ziona Tucker plays The Little Match Girl, with Caroline Beals as Gerda, her cat. Caroline’s gestures and mewls are perfectly on point.

Shalandis Wheeler Smith played the Wind, a Thief, a Venomous Snake, an Elderly Townsperson, and one of the Three Kings. Marcos Martinez is a Passerby, an Elderly Person, the African King, and one of the Three Kings. Annie Zanetti, one of my personal favorites for her generous caricatures, accents, and unrelenting commitment to her characters, played the Mother, the Wide, a Townsperson, and Babushka. She was also spirit of The Little Match Girl’s Grandmother who welcomed her into heaven. Walter Riddle was the Wind, a Thief, a Beggar, and a Townsperson, while Justin Sisk was a Sales Person, Father, Husband, Townsperson, and one of the Three Kings. Finally, Prudence Reynolds was The Child and Sarah Rose Wilkinson played guitar – the only accompaniment.

Great theater? No. Prudence, at one point kept looking towards the door. I assume a family member or friend had just entered. Given the minimal set and props, the ensemble had to mime such details as a dinner table and the gifts of the Wise Men. It was difficult to tell exactly what sort of work Babushka was performing, we just knew it was all-consuming and had Zanetti winding her bottom like a Jamaican dancehall girl.

One young audience member, presumably one not acclimated to live theater, at one point broke out into uncontrollable laughter. Zanetti handled this beautifully, including the young lady and her friends in an interactive search for “the Newborn King,” An inviting family-friendly experience? Yes, and well worth the trip to the unfamiliar territory of Ashland! Not only is this a welcoming environment for families with children of all ages, the program began with a gentle introduction to theater etiquette, and can be enjoyed by audience members from ages 3 and up on age-appropriate levels of understanding. In keeping with the outreach and communication, on Friday audience members who arrived early on Friday were able to take photos with The Snow Queen (Ricks), and on Saturday there are holiday crafts before the 3:00pm show.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Louise Ricks & Whistle Stop Theatre Company

Little Match Girl 6
Marcos Martinez, Shalandis Wheeler Smith, Ziona Tucker, and Walter Riddle
Little Match Girl 4
Annie Zanetti and Prudence Reynolds
Little Match Girl 5
Ziona Tucker and Caroline Beales
Little Match Girl 2
Ziona Tucker

 

MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS: A Holiday Heartwarmer

MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS: When Dreams Come True

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23230

Performances: October 27 – December 30, 2018

Ticket Prices: Start at $21

Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a musical adaptation of a children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, and the book for the musical is by Robert Kauzlaric with music and lyrics by George Howe. It is a book unfamiliar to me, my daughter, and my two grandsons, but after spending Sunday afternoon at the Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn it will likely find it way onto our bookshelves this coming holiday season. It has comedy, adventure, and penguins.

Richard Popper is a house painter and decorator of modest means; he and his wife Florence live on a strict budget that does not allow for the travel and adventures Mr. Popper dreams of. He is especially fond of Antarctic exploration and penguins. Of course, there’s more to the story. Imagine their surprise when the Poppers hear on the radio that Mr. Popper’s favorite explorer, Admiral Drake, has received Mr. Popper’s fan letter and is responding with a surprise. Soon a large crate is delivered to the Popper’s Stillwater, Minnesota home and inside is a genuine Gentoo penguin from Antartica that quickly becomes a part of the Popper’s little family. (In the book, it seems the Poppers were British and have two children, but in the musical the live in the USA and their only children are the feathered kind.)

The Popper’s household soon expands, as their male penguin, Captain Cook, eventually grows lonely, and an aquarium that Mr. Popper contacts for help has a lonely female penguin, Greta, that they generously ship to the Popper’s residence. The next thing you know, there are ten penguin chicks and the poor Poppers have to figure out how to keep all these penguin bellies full of fresh fish and frozen shrimp. Their solution – Popper’s Performing Penguins – leads to more hilarity and the gradual realization that touring on the vaudeville circuit is no way for a family of birds to live.

Yes, I said vaudeville. Mr. Popper’s Penguins was written in 1938 and vaudeville as well as references to the WPA (the federal government’s New Deal Administration program called the Works Progress Administration from 1935-1939, when it was renamed the Work Projects Administration), along with Mrs. Popper’s job search and the family’s focus on finances will likely go over the heads of the young audience members as well as most of their parents. Let’s face it, I’m a grandmother, and this was before my time, too. I only know about these things because I teach dance history! My daughter did ask what WPA was, but neither grandson seemed to notice or care.

All the shenanigans are skillfully handled by director Josh Chenard, with musical direction by Jason Marks and choreography by Wes Seals. A cast of five talented actors play all the roles – some thirteen different characters, with Derrick Jacques as Mr. Popper and Renee McGowan as Mrs. Popper. Keaton Hillman Emma-Claire Polich, (both ensemble) and Eve Marie Tuck (swing) play all the other characters. Both Kingston (age 10) and his mom Soleil were impressed by Keaton Hillman who changed characters, costumes and accents with the dexterity of a magician, and manipulated the Captain Cook penguin puppet as well.

Yes, the two adult penguins were large puppets (credit Kylie Clark with the puppet design – something Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre does so well) while the 10 penguin chicks were smaller, stuffed versions. Emmitt (age 4) was enthralled by the penguins. He spent most of the hour (no intermission) perched on the edge of his seat, his eyes wide open so as not to miss anything. He did tear his eyes away from the stage to lean in and ask his mom, “Can I have a pet penguin?” He made a second earnest plea out in the parking lot, adding that the penguin could live in the refrigerator.

With about six musical numbers, Mr. Popper’s Penguins moved at a fairly rapid pace – but never felt rushed. Jaques and McGowan carried most of the story, and their voices are strong and clear, making it easy for attendees of all ages to understand the lyrics. Jeanne Nugent’s costumes are lovely – especially the women’s wide-legged pants that remind me of Ms. Celie’s pants from The Color Purple. Mrs. Popper’s apron, Mr. Popper’s bow tie, and painter’s coveralls, and the props used by the various characters (a wooden dog, a hat with the gray hair attached, Mr. Popper’s painter’s ladder and pipe) are all overly exaggerated, almost cartoonish.

Taking this theme about as far as it could go, Chris Raintree’s set includes larger than life library books that open up to reveal entire rooms. “Atkinson’s Kitchen Companion” houses the Popper’s kitchen while their living room is housed within a tome entitled “432 Proudfoot Avenue” and the admiral’s ship is docked inside a book on Antarctic exploration. The production is visually stimulating but not over stimulating.

There’s also lots of word play. Captain Cook and Greta’s brood are given the names of famous explorers, such as Ferdinand, Columbus, and Magellan. There’s also Isabella and Victoria, who wears a tiara. Finally, but not least, there is all the alliteration! Mr. Popper’s Penguins alliterates just about every “p” word you can think of, and when they run out of “p” words they alliterate other letters of the alphabet.

Recommended for ages 4 and up, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a family-friendly production that is perfect for the younger members of the audience and is being offered as an alternative or addition to holiday staples, such as The Nutcracker. Unlike many productions of past seasons, there is none of the double entendre and innuendo that seemed to be intended for the adults. Here, the focus is all on the pleasure of the kids, and Kingston and Emmitt would give this production a combined two thumbs up.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Mr Popper's Penguins
Renée McGowan and Derrick Jaques. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Mr Popper's Penguins
Renée McGowan and Derrick Jaques. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Mr Popper's Penguins
Eve Marie Tuck, Derrick Jaques, Renée McGowan, Keaton Hillman, Emma-Claire Polich. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

KNUFFLE BUNNY: Musical Theater for the Whole Family

KNUFFLE BUNNY: A Cautionary Musical

A Family Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis, with input by Emmitt, Kingston, and Soleil

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23230

Performances: July 13 – August 12, 2018

Ticket Prices: Start at $18

Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org

Knuffle Bunny is a hilarious family-friendly musical that held the attention of even the youngest audience members. With a running time of just under 45 minutes, and no intermission, I thought it might be worth a test run with my youngest grandson, Emmitt, who just turned 4.

Emmitt sat attentively for the entire show, sometimes singing along, eyes big as saucers, feet swinging happily. He was the first in our party of four to predict that the “rat with wings” would be making a comeback – an event which would open up the possibility for a sequel. His final pronouncement, “Awesome!”

Knuffle Bunny – much to my surprise, the “k” is pronounced – is based on the book of the same name by Mo Willems, who also wrote the script and lyrics. The music is by Michael Silversher. Upbeat and colorful, with a simple, uncluttered set designed by Emily Hake Massie and lighting by BJ Wilkinson, Knuffle Bunny is a cautionary tale about the adventure that ensues when pre-verbal toddler Trixie, played by Christina Ramsey, leaves her beloved stuffed bunny at the laundromat. Her poor dad (David Janosik) is cast as the somewhat incompetent rube by his beloved wife (Louise Ricks) who from the beginning doubts his ability to successfully take a basket of laundry to the laundromat with Trixie in tow. Hilarity ensues.

There is a chorus kick line, some striking air guitar play, animated puppetry of gigantic pieces of laundry (a necktie a onesie, a brassiere, and a man’s shirt), and a local geography lesson as the ensemble (Brandon James Johns and Corinne MacLean) runs across the stage holding signs reading Broad Street, Boulevard, and Cary Street as the little family makes their way from their house to the laundromat.

There is plenty for the adults to enjoy, as well. Trixie’s sad ballad to her beloved Knuffle Bunny has the ensemble holding up their lighters, as is customary at concerts – a feature that may be over the heads of the littlest audience members but did not go unnoticed by the adults.  (I couldn’t resist – here’s a link to an article on the practice of holding up lighters at concerts: https://beat.media/history-of-the-lighter-at-concerts)

My adult daughter, Soleil, could hardly contain her composure as Trixie’s big number was set up – the dramatic lighting, the mood music, all to accompany a heart-wrenching song made up entirely of nonsense syllables, “Aggle Flaggle Klabble.”  When asked by the cast members during the post-show meet and greet what he thought of the show, my seasoned assistant Kingston (older brother to Emmitt) responded that he enjoyed the songs and wanted more like “Aggle Flaggle Klabble.” I know that Willems wrote lyrics, but I wonder if the “words” to “Aggle Flaggle Klabble” come out the same each time – and if they didn’t, would anyone notice?

Susan Sanford directed this delightful musical – which really caters to the youngest of audiences without boring older siblings or the adults who accompany them. Go. Enjoy. And don’t forget to take a young person or two. Copies of the book Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale are available for purchase at the bar.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Knuffle Bunny
Christina Ramsey and Louise Ricks
Knuffle Bunny
David Janosik, Christina Ramsey, Knuffle Bunny, and Louise Ricks
Knuffle Bunny
Louise Ricks, Christina Ramsey, Knuffle Bunny, and David Janosik
Knuffle Bunny
Knuffle Bunny, Christina Ramsey, and David Janosik