THE BASICS: MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS, a musical by Kauzlaric and Howe based on the classic 1938 children’s book presented by Theatre of Youth, directed by Jennifer Toohey, starring Bobby Cooke and Melissa Levin as Mr. and Mrs. Popper, runs Saturday and Sunday, December 14 and 15 at both 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 and Saturday and Sunday, December 21 and 22 at 1:00, at the Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen Street. (884.4400). www.theatreofyouth.org Recommended for ages 5+ Runtime: 1 hour 5 minutes (without intermission) for the show, but stay for the entertaining “stage magic reveal/Q&A talkback” as well as photo ops with the cast. Books available for purchase in the lobby from Talking Leaves Books.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Based on the novel by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mr. Popper’s Penguins tells the warm-hearted tale of Mr. Popper, a hardworking housepainter with his head in the clouds who dreams of becoming an Antarctic explorer. His loving wife, used to Mr. Popper’s polar penchants, seems pretty much up for anything. And that’s good, because when the Poppers receive a gift of a real live penguin, the Antarctic comes to their house, and soon they have an entire family of little penguins! With so many mouths (or beaks) to feed, how can the Poppers provide proper provisions for this proliferating population?
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: As the Theatre of Youth writes: “nothing brightens the dull days of winter like a troupe of tap-dancing penguins!” and you just can’t argue with that! So take a break from the commercial dystopia that is Christmas, stuff the kids in their winter boots and then into their car seats, and go see this show.
Theatre of Youth has been presenting plays and musicals for 48 years (it’s also their 20thseason at the Allendale Theatre) and they know kids. And they also know theater, so just about every show is also entertaining for the adults who bring those kids. Now, to be sure, some of their shows have been pretty silly, such as the recent DRAGONS LOVE TACOS about which I wrote “Your trip will be one of those parental ‘labors of love.’”
Theatre of Youth has been presenting plays and musicals for 48 years… and they know kids.
But others have been works of art, worthy of being on any stage anywhere such as STELLALUNA or THE JUNGLE BOOK and this show is more like those with something wonderfully rewarding for everyone of every age (well, every age 5+).
Theatre of Youth Artistic Director Meg Quinn has a special knack for choosing directors, and her choice of Jennifer Toohey, Associate Professor of Theater at Buff State, was informed. Fun fact: Jenn Toohey was a dialect coach for the 2019 season at the famous Shaw Festival in Canada and I couldn’t help but wonder, when the penguins “vocalize,” (AWWWWK! AWWWWK! ) did they have an authentic Antarctic accent? They must have!
Full disclosure, I was born in 1950 and some favorite childhood memories are of books written in the 1930s, including Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel or the series of Mr. Small books by Lois Lenski. I’m not alone in this love affair with the 1930s and 40s. If you love the film “Casablanca” you feel it too and so did George Lucas as evidenced by his creation “Indiana Jones” who, like Mr. Popper, loved exploration.
I was, and I think you will also be, immediately drawn in by the 1930s zeitgeist of Mr. Popper’s Penguins that was so well presented by the TOY design team including Kenneth Shaw, who created the set, the costumes, the properties and designed the puppets (and there are over 40 penguin puppets needed to make this show work). Fun facts revealed on stage: In real life, Emperor Penguins can grow to weigh 100 pounds! They don’t have teeth, but swallow fish whole. Their greatest enemies are seals. That’s all you need to know.
But, remember, here we get tap-dancing penguins! Kelly Cammarata’s choreography and sure-footed tap-dancing is really what brings it all together. Bobby Cooke, as Mr. Popper, is a choreographer himself and a dancer of note, and the Cooke-Cammerata (she’s also on stage making the baby penguins dance) team delivers, ably abetted by Bobby MacDonnell who dances as the penguin named in honor of Polar Explorer “Captain Cook” and Heather Reed (also a choreographer) as the penguin “Greta.”
But musicals are both dancing and singing and that brings us to a special shout out for Melissa Levin (as Mrs. Popper) who has one of Buffalo’s most beautiful sopranos. Everyone was well-accompanied by a musical trio (Ryan Campbell, Brian DeJesus, Joe Isgar) dressed up in old-timey barbershop (straw boaters, striped vests, sleeve garters) attire.
The show is stage-managed by Brittany Wysocki who oversees the 40-plus plush penguin puppets as well as multiple-character costume changes.
With sound by Chester Popiolkowski, lighting by Todd Proffitt, Wardrobe by Barbara Priore, vocal direction by Keith Ersing, the show is stage-managed by Brittany Wysocki who oversees the 40-plus plush penguin puppets as well as multiple-character costume changes. Between them talented character actors Angelo Heimowitz and Christine Seshie play 16 roles complete with appropriate clothing for each character).
Last week on “Theater Talk” (Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on 88.7 WBFO) we were talking about our first theatrical experiences and mine was a traveling troupe’s presentation of PUSS IN BOOTS which came to my elementary school. I’ve never forgotten it. Perhaps MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS will be the start of a lifelong love of theater for someone in your family. I certainly hope so.
Speaking of which, Theatre of Youth puts on a wide variety of “TOY Workshops” for different age groups and their 2020 Winter, Spring, and Summer sessions are coming soon. Here’s a two-minute video about that.
Note: TOY is committed to increasing access and inclusion for our community’s children and families who need special considerations and so they offer a “Sensory Friendly” show on Sunday morning, December 15 at 10:00 a.m. at the Allendale Theatre. Note: A special access code is required. If you do not have the access code, please contact Michelle in the box office at 716.884.4400 x304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT’S NEXT: MISS NELSON IS MISSING Jan 25-Feb 9, 2020; THE OUTSIDERS March 14-April 5; and GO, DOG, GO! May 9 – June 6, 2020
*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!