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Sweet and silly "Madeline" at Northwest Puppet Center

MadelineCarter Family Marionettes’ current production, Madeline and the Gypsies, will be familiar territory for fans of the “Madeline” series by Ludwig Bemelmans. Madeline and her pal Pepito visit a gypsy circus, get stuck on a Ferris wheel during a storm and rescued by a circus clown, and ride off in the circus caravan with the kind (or is she?)  “Gypsy Mama,” who sews them into a lion costume to hide them from a worried Miss Clavel. The “lion” roams the countryside, scaring the pants off everyone it meets, but eventually the children are reunited with Miss Clavel and, as Bemelmans was fond of saying, all is well.

The puppet show is faithful to the story — the plot is only slightly modified, rhyming dialogue is taken from the book, and backdrops are beautifully painted in Bemelmans’ distinctive, slightly-askew style. Handled differently, Gypsy Mama could have been disturbing (she does, after all, give the kids a strong dose of something to make them sleep, and tries to hide them when she realizes that Miss Clavel is searching for them), but she’s portrayed by Bemelmans as benign and even sympathetic. The children aren’t frightened — they get to join the circus and learn to ride horses, yippee! — and yours won’t be, either.

The Carters necessarily work on a small scale, and what they do with their limited space, and the way they solve certain technical problems, is fun to watch. The little girls in two straight lines are represented not by twelve individual little-girl puppets, but by two bases with six puppets affixed to each. When they move, Miss Clavel’s little girls move as one, and the result is humorous and will please kids in the audience old enough to figure out how the puppeteers did it. The puppets themselves are gorgeous: a black circus horse, a giraffe being ridden by the gypsy woman, a trio of chickens with downy tailfeathers.

Kids in the audience laughed and screamed (a preschooler behind me kept yelling, “This is so funny!”) at the antics onstage. There are a lot of silly touches — chickens that do pratfalls, kids falling on their bums, the lion that opens its huge mouth to reveal Madeline’s head inside.

The show is only 40 minutes long, which is perfect for the younger audience that this will surely appeal to. However, I attended with a 7-year-old Madeline fan who was serious about comparing the puppet show to the story she knew so well, and she loved it.

If you go

Leave time before or after to check out the puppets on display in the lobby. The artistry involved in creating the marionettes (some are from past Carter Family productions, others are antiques) is far more apparent when you have a chance to see them up close.

There’s also a climbing structure and play area in front of the building, which kids are free to use before or after performances.

Madeline and the Gypsies plays on Saturdays and Sundays, 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., through Dec. 23. Tickets are $8.50-$10.50 and can be purchased by phone or at the door. The Northwest Puppet Center is located at 9123 15th Ave. N.W., Seattle. 206-523-2579, www.nwpuppet.org

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