Winnie the Pooh

Fantasy Playhouse’s Winnie the Pooh, running this weekend and next at the VBC, is a wonderful opportunity to expose your younger kids to live theatre.  Much in the style of A.A. Milne’s original books, this is a very mellow production, with no frightening moments or shocks for the younger crowd.

This show ties together several of the bedtime stories we remember from the original books, and brings us most of the characters we remember.  There is no Tigger, but Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga, Roo, and Christopher Robin himself all get plenty of stage time, along with a host of other forest animals.  Overall, Fantasy Playhouse has done a beautiful job of putting together a perfect little production for future theatre-lovers to be introduced to the magic of sitting in a darkened auditorium and watching live performances.  “Let the Magic begin”, indeed.

Director Jessica Alexander shows great respect for the source material.  The characters are all distinctive, and animated in their own ways, without anything being over the top.  There are no complicated character motives or sub-text in this play, and sometimes that can be even harder to pull off.  Because there is no textual sublety to keep an audience’s attention, the performances have to be super clean, and Alexander nailed it.

The actors have all done a fine job in capturing the distinctive personalities of what are really rather one-dimensional characters (as they should be with this source material, and this target audience).  Cameron DuVall, as Pooh, does a wonderful job of portraying the best, most caring, lovable friend anyone can have (as long as there’s no honey nearby).  Michael Bradley, as Rabbit, does an amazing job as the (relatively) hyper-active hatcher of crazy schemes.  He was a joy to watch every time he was on stage.  Kevin O’Brien, as Owl, is wonderful as the know-it-all who doesn’t actually know so much, with stellar distinctive vocal choices for the character.  Jason Lightfoot, as Eeyore, comes across a bit too much like emo-kid-with-a-grudge-against-the-world, rather than the plain old despondency we know from the books, but he still does a fine job of running with that choice, and only the older folks in the audience will understand the difference.  Laura Neveau, as Piglet, shows promising stage potential.  Piglet was probably the least interesting of the primary characters, but with a little more experience, and a willingness to take some chances, Neveau is going to be someone to keep an eye on.  Andrea Jernigan does a great job with a problematic stage adaptation of Kanga (more on that later), and Riley Matthews, as her son Roo, totally owns the stage when it’s his turn.  William Ziegler, as Christopher Robin, has the great fortune to be onstage with Meredith Johnson, the storyteller, HEARING the stories, but he also gets to be IN the stories, and he does a fine job with both.

Clint Hughes’ Technical Direction was spot-on, with the technical components all blending well, and all supporting the script, with no wasted showing off.  My only technical complaint is during the scene where Pooh rides a balloon up to the bee hive, it would have been much more entertaining for the young audience to leave Pooh suspended in view, rather than having him disappear into the flies, but it’s a minor quibble.  The amazing paint job on the stage floor is the pièce de résistance that nudges Fred Sayers’ simple-but-perfect set of the 100-Acre Woods toward the top of the list for recent productions in the area.  Pam Anders’ costumes are really well done, providing distinctive looks for 18 different animals, and remaining faithful to the feel of the source material.  Kudos to Wynn Oldham for the make-up designs that nicely polished off each character look.  Cynthia Meyer’s lighting, and Gordon Williamson’s sound, both served the production well.  They weren’t called on for anything too fancy, so the fact that we hardly notice their work is actually high praise in this case.

The two major problems with this production both lie in the script itself, which is not the fault of this cast and crew.  Firstly, these books and the play are targeting a very young audience.  The books are arranged as a sequence of short, simple stories, each of which can stand alone–perfect for bedtime reading to a young child.  Each chapter has a beginning, middle, and end, lessons are learned, and then the book moves on to the next story in the next chapter.  This script, on the other hand, takes several of the stories, drops them all into the blender, and tries to weave the whole thing back together into one long story.  There are no clean story arcs, and everything gets generally muddled.  Older audience members can keep track as the pieces of the individual stories are picked up and dropped, but from the reactions of the half of the audience tonight that was under eight, including my own four-year old, those clean story arcs were sorely missing.

The other major issue with the script is the character of Kanga.  Milne wrote a loving, caring mother, and this script seems to be trying to make a statement either about over-the-top helicopter parenting, or obsessive-compulsive disorders, I’m not sure which.  It is true that the original Kanga was worried about the safety of Roo, and served as the closest thing to a “mother” to the residents of the 100-Acre Wood, handing out medicine and giving baths.  While the arrival in Milne’s book of Kanga and Roo to the Woods does frighten Pooh and friends (as any kid meeting strangers can understand), it is very clear that Kanga is actually a lovable and loving person with a sense of humor.  But with this script Kanga becomes the show-length villain, showing no compassion for anyone else, but only being concerned about her own obsessive worries over germs, posture, and diet.  Still, all of that is for the adults to notice, because it’s handled rather gently.  I just hope any parents actually read the stories to their kids later, so they don’t end up with warped view of who Kanga is.

Those script issues aside, Fantasy Playhouse has put together a marvelous production.  This is a very “old-school” style of entertainment, very “British”, if you will.  Winnie the Pooh doesn’t transfix kids with dazzling effects and craziness, but instead provides a warm, soothing hug.  If there are younger kids in your house, you simply can’t miss it.

The show runs through 27 February, with performances today (Sunday), and next Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 and 5 PM, and Friday evening at 7 PM.  Tickets can be purchased online, or by calling 256-539-6829, or at the VBC Playhouse box office one hour before curtain.