Credit: Elise Bakketun, Seattle Children's Theatre
In the beloved children's book, “Mr. Popper's Penguins,” published in 1938, the troupe of performing penguins makes its momentous debut in, of all places, Seattle. Nearly 80 years later, this classic story celebrating love of the natural world along with the importance of optimism and teamwork, comes full circle in a delightful new production. Adapted from the Newbery Honor-winning book, a musical of the same name is on now through Dec. 31 at Seattle Children's Theatre.
This show is highly recommended for elementary-age children, especially complemented with lessons or discussions about preservation and the environment. Because of the brief running time, it's also an entertaining show for preschoolers who may have trouble sitting still for longer spells, though they may not fully follow the story line.
The stage adaptation elevates the original story to a new level thanks to two unique features: captivating puppetry work and enticing, toe-tapping tunes that hold the attention of even the most easily distracted audience members.
As in the original book by Richard and Florence Atwater, the play tells the story of Mr. Popper, who lives a simple life as a house painter, but spends much of his free time devouring all the knowledge he can about the wider world around him that he's never seen. Of particular interest to him is Antarctica and the non-flying birds (penguins!) who inhabit the continent. When he receives a suprise gift of a live penguin, all sorts of adventures ensue for Mr. Popper and his wife.
In one scene, the Poppers attempt to make their home as penguin-friendly as possible and open all their windows in the dead of winter so that the birds have fresh air. They also spray water on their floors, which freezes, so the penguins can slide and skate and feel at home in their new home. The humans, of course, are freezing.
Music and lyrics in the stage production are fun and fresh yet harken back to musical numbers from old-time Hollywood movies. While the original literary story never really dragged, the clever rhymes and playful choreography in the musical numbers ensure the tale is told in captivating and easily digestible pieces.
Puppet designer Nick Barnes deserves highest accolades for devising a way for the principal four actors on stage to simultaneously play their multitude of roles while working their penguin puppets with seemingly minimal effort. The larger puppets representing penguins Captain Cook and Greta are affixed with grips in the backs of their heads to both turn heads and operate the beaks as well as flap their wings, while their webbed feet are actually set on wheels so the actors can bring them on and off stage with ease. There are also variations for some of the smaller penguin puppets so that in all, the actors are creating scenes for up to 10 penguin puppets at a time.
It is a credit to Barnes and to the cast that while it's clear they are operating the penguin puppets the whole time, the technical work never distracts from the charming story they are relaying.
Parents should know
To be fair, I intended to read the entire book with my 6-year-old before we saw the show, but we ran out of time to make it past the first four chapters. But we found reading the book in advance is by no means a requirement; don't let that stop you from seeing the show. The musical is a wonderful stand-alone story. In fact, in the days after seeing it when we did finish the book, my son pointed out that the show never revealed that the Poppers had two kids, or that (spoiler alert) Mrs. Popper did not accompany Mr. Popper on his journey at the conclusion of the story.
Would the discrepancies have distracted from the main themes of the story? Perhaps, but not in any significant way. The SCT production ensures audience members walk away having experienced something magical. At the same time, questions arise regarding the wisdom of removing a penguin — or any wild animal — from its native habitat. My son and I had much to talk about on the drive home, which is always a good sign that something made an impression.
The show is recommended for children ages 4 and up and runs just about one hour long. I also brought my 3-year-old daughter. She didn't really follow the story, but she loved the penguins, the songs and dances, and the surprise snow that fell on the audience about two-thirds of the way through. In fact, the snow was her favorite part, she said.
If you go...
When: “Mr. Popper's Penguins” plays through December 31.
Where: Seattle Children's Theatre at Seattle Center, 201 Thomas St., Seattle
Cost: Tickets range from $22–$39 (depending on day of performance). Buy tickets online. Rush tickets are available for $18 one hour before showtime, if unsold seats remain. Check the website for periodic accessible performances.
Parking: Try street parking or one of the surface lots in the neighborhood, or take transit to Seattle Center.
Tips: Download the Active Audience Guide for kids' activities connected to the play. Read historical tidbits about the show's origins and get a behind-the-scenes look at how some of the penguin puppets were made.
Nearby fun: Check out ParentMap’s guide to Seattle Center and don't miss the fantastic Artists at Play playground on the east side of the Armory. Winterfest 2017, with its charming model train village and small ice rink in Fisher Pavilion, begins November 24.