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Mo Willems’ ELEPHANT AND PIGGIE’S “WE ARE IN A PLAY!” enchants young (4+) and old at TOY

THE BASICS:  ELEPHANT AND PIGGIE’S “WE ARE IN A PLAY!”, a musical by Mo Willems and Deborah Wicks LaPuma, presented by Theatre of Youth (TOY), directed by Michael Walline, starring Bobby Cooke, Arin Lee Dandes, with Sara Mariole, Jenny McCabe, and Alexendria Watts as “The Squirrelles” opened May 6 and runs through June 3, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., plus June 3 at 10:00 a.m. Allendale Theatre 203 Allen Street (884-4400). www.theatreofyouth.org Runtime about 75 minutes, no intermission, talk back after each performance.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Elephant and Piggie, the wildly popular children’s book characters created by multiple Emmy award winning Sesame Street writer Mo Willems, sing and dance their way through questions which continue to bedevil adults such as what do you wear to a party? Now how about when it’s a fancy/pool/costume party? Should you share your ice cream? How can two friends play with one toy? What if that toy gets broken? What if that friendship gets broken? Just as Sesame Street creates skits that work on two different levels, for preschoolers and adults, this series of musical skits hath charms for young and old “simultaneously at the same time.”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Delightfully daft, charmingly acted, this high-energy production allows two TOY veterans, Arin Lee Dandes and Bobby Cooke, to end this successful TOY season with a wow. Cooke, dressed in a loosely fitting elephant-gray business suit complete with gray top hat and large attached gray ears, presents the more reticent, doubtful, occasionally anxious ELEPHANT named Gerald. Dandes, in hot pink from wig to shoes (some of it recycled, she said, from PINKALICIOUS), is the slightly more adventurous pig named Piggie.

And then there are the Squirrelles, the back-up girl group modeled after the Shirelles (remember Goffin/King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”?)

Or think of any of the other iconic 1960s groups such as the Supremes, Vandellas, Chiffons, or Shangri-Las and you’ve got the Squirrelles in sequined outfits complete with squirrel’s tails. Alexandria Watts, Jenny McCabe, and Sara Marioles as “Squirrelle #1, #2, and #3” help move this way beyond “a kid’s play” to another level of nutty.

Another charmingly wacky trip to zany has Elephant becoming aware that he and Piggie are being observed by an audience. They get the audience to do things (clap, wave their arms) which is great fun, but then comes an existential crisis. They realize that they are in a play and that at some point the play will end, but when will that be and then what will become of them? Isn’t that something we all want to know about life? Like Mo Willems, Shakespeare had some of his characters deal with “the big question.” Unlike Gerald, Hamlet says of the end “’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.” Macbeth felt that “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”

Heard no more!?!  It’s true, at the consummation of most “grown up” plays in other theaters, when the house lights come up, the actors are “heard no more.” But never at Theatre of Youth!

All performances are followed by a 15-minute “talk back” with members of the cast and crew sitting on the edge of the stage. 

All performances are followed by a 15-minute “talk back” with members of the cast and crew sitting on the edge of the stage.  Audience members (adults, too, by the way) can ask the actors questions about their roles, voices, costumes or about props or special effects (and unlike magicians, they do reveal how the “magic” was created). It’s often as entertaining as the play, since children aren’t shy about asking those questions that we all have.

If one of your questions is “what will TOY offer in their 46th season (2017-2018)?” here are some answers (appropriate ages noted): In October, it’s BUNNICULA (6+), and later in the month, for two days, NEW KID (8+), then for December A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (3+). In January (2018) it’s THE BOY AT THE EDGE OF EVERYTHING (11+), for March JUNIE B. JONES IS NOT A CROOK (6+), ending in May with STELLALUNA (4+).

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

If you enjoy public radio and television in Buffalo, you’ve probably heard or seen Peter Hall asking you for money. He’s the co-host of “Theater Talk” with Anthony Chase (Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO, 88.7 FM) and is the afternoon drive host on Classical 94.5 / WNED where he also produces and hosts “Buffalo Philharmonic Live” (Sundays at 5 p.m. repeating Tuesdays at 11 p.m.) broadcasting BPO performances conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Around town he’s the emcee for Buffalo Chamber Music Society concerts, the Falletta competition, and the Camerata di Sant’Antonio concerts. If you see him at a play or musical with a pen in his hand, he’s probably writing a review for buffalorising.com.

In past lives he has been a Director of Membership for Western New York Public Broadcasting (PBS and NPR), a Director of Marketing for Canisius College, and before that was a Director of Marketing for Fisher-Price. He feels fortunate to have worked for some of the most trusted brands in Western New York.

Growing up in the Amherst school system, music, the arts, literature, outdoor activities, and teaching were important in his family. His grandfather, the painter W.J. Schwanekamp, has works on display at the Burchfield-Penney. His father was a high school English teacher and his mother was a public librarian. In high school, in addition to running track and cross country and being in the ski club, Peter played various instruments in the orchestra, had leading roles in the plays, and was an editor of the high school newspaper. Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty years he has taught undergraduate and graduate classes at Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

Depending on the season, on weekends he can be seen riding with the Niagara Frontier Bicycle Club or teaching downhill skiing at Kissing Bridge.

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