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Review: MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS at Imagination Stage

Despite a solid cast, it's the puppets of the penguins who grab the attention of young audiences

Imagination Stage has a talented cast to put on its summer offering "Mr. Popper's Penguins."

Jonathan Atkinson plays the housepainter who dreams to travel to Arctic lands; Edima Essien is his patient but supportive wife. And Sylvern Groomes Jr. and Karen Vincent play just about everybody else in the whole town of Stillwater and beyond, with the switch of a voice or by donning a brand new costume -- often in the same scene.

Singing the songs of George Howe in Robert Kauzlaric's adaptation of the beloved children's book by Richard and Florence Atwater, the four would be more than enough to entertain a theater of families.

But they're entirely upstaged by a troupe of 12 penguins.

Not actual birds at all, the penguins are the marvelous puppet creations of Alex Vernon. Though simply made of wood and with limited motion, they flap their webbed feet as they roll across the stage, and puppeteers (the overworked supporting players Groomes and Vincent once again) seem to disappear behind them in their coveralls, as they operate their beaks and flippers and blinking eyes, bringing them to life with expression and personality.

And of course the kids love them.

In the story, Popper gets a penguin in a crate from an Arctic explorer he's written. First there's one, then two, then a whole family (pulled by a pair of strings, they all get to waddle together in line, convincingly).

Show biz gets involved and there's lessons to be learned, but good golly, those penguins are cute, and small fry at the theater will delight in them whatever they do.

Once a student at Imagination Stage himself, Nathaniel P. Claridad returned from New York to direct, keeping the action moving. Though the music would have been better played live (instead of being pre-recorded), the songs are jaunty enough that some kids were jumping in their seats along to them on opening night.

Andrew Cohen's scenic design conjures up a homey 1930s feel, as do the costumes of Ivania Stack, who must also be well-versed in quick change for the busy supporting cast.

An unintended special effect was evoking the weather of the Arctic by cranking up the AC to the maximum (Patrons are advised to bring sweaters).

Running time: 75 minutes on weekdays with no intermission; On the weekends, it's 90 minutes, including an intermission.

Photo credit: Jonathan Atkinson in "Mr. Popper's Penguins" at Imagination Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

"Mr. Popper's Penguins," suggested for ages 3-10, runs through Aug. 7 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Tickets at 301-280-1660 or online.

From This Author - Roger Catlin

Roger Catlin, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a Washington D.C.-based arts writer whose work appears regularly in and AARP the Magazine. He has... (read more about this author)

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