BWW Review: 'I've Got the Chills' For CTC'S Charming MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS
In the depths of Minnesota's January cold, Children's Theatre Company (CTC) presents a story based on a town in England, with a name similar to one outside of Minneapolis, Stillwater. Here, the musical adapted from the 1938 Newbury Honor Book "Mr. Popper's Penguins." comes to life under Director Emma Earle. While the entire musical originally premiered through Pins and Needles Productions, Bristol, UK, CTC transports the cast and crew to the Minneapolis stage though numerous charming evenings and afternoons to savor.
Richard and Florence Atwater's familiar story follows the life of a house painter, Mr, Popper, after raising his two children with Mrs. Potter, in the small town of Stillwater. While painting and wallpapering the neighbor's houses, Mr. Potter dreams of adventures still to happen when he says: "What he regretted most of all was that he had never seen those great shining white expanses of ice and snow. How he wished he might have joined one of the great expeditions [to Antarctica]."
While Mr. Popper ruminates about exploring mountain tops and meeting penguins, Mrs. Popper brings him back to the household chores at 432 Proudfoot Lane. However, fortune shines on Mr. Popper when Admiral Drake, currently on an expedition in the South Pole, read Mr. Potter's letter to him and then sends a penguin from the South Pole to Stillwater.
When the newly christened penguin, Captain Cook, becomes ill, the London Zoo sends another sickly penguin, Greta, and eventually the pair's brood of eight little penguins makes the Popper's household literally "'pop" open. Windows and doors open at 432 to allow the ice and snow into the house that accommodates the growing Captain Cook's and Greta's penguin family.
How do these tuxedoed penguins appear on stage? Master designer and puppeteer Nick Barnes fabricates "penguins on wheels" along with a slew of five puppet makers so these creatures move easily and freely throughout the musical, flapping wings while nodding their heads. Delightfully maneuvered by their puppeteers from behind, eventually the audience focuses only on the penguin's movements and their actions.
The endearing Mr. Popper,played by Richard Holt, and an equally darling Mrs. Potter, a feisty Monica Nash, creatively deal with Captain Cook and Greta while trying to feed them enough fresh fish as the penguins grow. The penguin romance also rekindles affection between Mr.and Mrs. Potter when Mrs. Potter finally supports these fantastical dreams and sings delightful lyrics that claim: "The house had heat but wasn't warm."
Luke Bateman's music accompanied by Richy Hughes' lyrics also create an especially poignant ballad sung by Mr. Popper. When Captain Cook succumbs to an illness, Mr. Popper cradles Cook in his arm while Popper laments, "Don't leave me now. I can't go back to life before you came."
Indeed, with perfectly understated costume and scenic design by Zoe Squire constructed through Clockwork Scenery, quick scene changes happen seamlessly. The Popper's lives transform when they train the penguin brood to perform, earning Mr. Popper elite status in Stillwater and across the country.
Popper's Performing Penguins fulfills the couple's wanderlust to travel America, to experience their dream of adventure. The adapted musical compresses the original novel, while the audience stills enjoys Mr. Popper's success watching these adorable puppets perform with the help of several cast members--Susanna Jennings and Christopher Finn, actors who also rotate in numerous cameo roles. When Admiral Drake appears in the states, he brings an important message to Mr. and Mrs. Popper regarding his penguins, which resonates more today than perhaps in the 1930's.
Written at the end of the Great Depression, when a family's income might be severely tight, the Poppers choose a very ethical decision for their traveling Performing Penguins. In another modern twist, Mr. and Mrs. Popper land the trip of their dreams to Antarctica--where they travel and work together. Which proves there's no time limit on making any dreams come true, whether at six or sixty years of age. Or the opportunity to create the inspiration or timing to help someone else's dream to come true. Everyone needs a little help in achieving their dreams. to have their deepest wishes survive and thrive.
Believing in each other, whether through family, friendship or partnership, doubles the joy during a Great Depression, recession or prosperity. One of the first chapter books children might read, as mentioned by an older friend at the performance, Mr. Popper proves dreams await for those who continue believing in their true selves and whatever might be possible. At the musical's finale. the audience enjoys a surprise sing a long, perfect for Minneapolis. After one magical afternoon or evening at CTC's absolutely winsome Mr. Popper's Penguins, everyone will agree for all involved in this musical that "I've Got the Chills for You."
Children's Theatre Company presents Pins and Needles Productions adaptation of Mr. Popper's Penguins through February 24. For information or tickets, please visit. www.childrenstheatre.org.