Actors Spencer Wolfe and Emmanuel Elpenord in SCT’s "The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show." Credit: Elise Bakketun
It’s not like you don’t know what comes next. After all, Eric Carle is practically required reading for tots and parents.
Seattle Children’s Theatre opened this season with a stage adaptation of four well-loved Eric Carle books: “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?;” “10 Little Rubber Ducks;” “The Very Lonely Firefly;” and for the grand finale, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
But there in the theater, at the moment a life-size brown bear puppet ambles onstage, everyone gasped. The kid next to me blurted out, “That’s so funny!” before his mom clapped her hand over his mouth. The red bird, propelled on a long stick, soars over the audience. Kids reached for it, arms outstretched. A hidden door opened to reveal the blue horse.
Each time a new animal appeared onstage, the audience let out “oohs” and “ahhs.” With 75 puppets in “The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show,” it’s a non-stop parade of new critters every minute. Every puppet is a wonderful surprise, even though they are all characters everyone in the audience knows well.
With an all-white backdrop and actors dressed in white overalls, the stage serves as a blank canvas for Carle’s distinctive and colorful creations. It’s a treat to see his iconic illustrations rendered in 3-D form, romping and hopping and pouncing across the stage. The actors don’t hide that they’re working the puppets. They act like, well, kids, playing with toys and petting animals.
The play, just like Carle’s books, is meant for very little kids. It’s slow-moving, with soothing music and deliberate dialogue. In fact, the script is lifted word-for-word from Carle’s books. (If it ain't broke, don’t fix it, right?) The predictable, repetitive wording is perfect for preschoolers. Even my 3-year-old, who barely speaks English, could chant along: “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?”
This is a show where the audience doesn’t have to be shushed. When 10 rubber ducks bob on the sea, a little voice from the audience called out, “Quack! Quack! Quack!”
I was glad the show didn’t start with “The Lonely Firefly,” because for that story, the theater went pitch dark. By then, my 3-year-old was completely entranced and didn’t get scared. The firefly flies to a lightbulb, a candle, a flashlight and — poof! — a beautiful fireworks show. When the firefly finds a group of other fireflies, you’ll see especially beautiful shadows as they flitter together.
The moon behind the fireflies transitions seamlessly into the moon behind a little egg, and we’ve entered Carle’s most well-known story, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
Kids started giggling watching the caterpillar squiggle around. The giggles turned into peals of laughter when the caterpillar grew into a big fat roly-poly caterpillar. Without his making a single sound, we all fall in love with the caterpillar.
Spoiler alert: The caterpillar becomes a butterfly. We know it’s coming, but still, there’s a sense of suspense waiting for the cocoon to open. And what a beautiful butterfly it was!
An audio voiceover at the beginning of the show warned that adults who don’t turn off their phones may be given a time-out. As with all other SCT plays, no photography or video recording is permitted. But at the end of the show, the actors walked onstage with Brown Bear and the Caterpillar and invited everyone to take as many pictures as they wanted, hashtags included. Brilliant marketing strategy, really.
After the show, we asked the three actors which animal from the play was their favorite. Emmanuel Elpenord’s favorite: the octopus, because it spins and swirls. Spencer Wolfe’s favorite: the pelican, who is silly and fun and eats a fish. Kirsty Sadler’s favorite: the white dog, because it’s so cute. My 7-year-old decided his favorite was: “All of them.”
The bottom line: This is the terrific first show for toddlers and preschoolers that will (hopefully) bridge their love of Eric Carle books to a love of theater. Bright colors, fun animals and less than an hour long: perfect!
If you go...
Where: Seattle Children's Theatre at Seattle Center, 201 Thomas St., Seattle. The performance takes place in the Charlotte Martin Theater (the big one) where there are no bad seats.
Cost: Tickets are $20–$40, plus a $4 processing fee and $1 facility fee. Tickets can be spendy for a family, but SCT offers various discounts. Rush tickets are half-price one hour before the show, based on availability. We saw a Saturday afternoon performance, and there were plenty of open seats.
Age recommendation: SCT recommends the show for ages 3 and up. It’s a great experience for little kids, but school-age kids may find the pace slow.
Run time: 55 minutes, no intermission.
Parents should know: Snacks are available for purchase before and after the show in the lobby; no food is allowed in the theater. Get there early to try out the photo op station and coloring activity in the lobby. Pick up a booster seat at the entrance to the theater so short patrons have a better view.
You can download an active audience guide filled with information about the makings of the play and related activities for kids. The type is dense; it’s meant for parents to leaf through, not the preschoolers.
Parking: Try street parking or one of the surface lots in the neighborhood. The theater is most easily accessed from the west side of Seattle Center.