Dallas — In our home, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is among our most read books. My young critics delight in reading the story in my lap, acting out crawling around the floor and devouring various foods, and even telling the story to each other with spur of the moment puppets made of bits of paper and string. We were thrilled to hear about Dallas Children’s Theater’s production of The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show, but I couldn’t help but wonder how, or even IF, a live theater production could capture the heart of this story.
Short answer: It can, and it did.
Created by Jonathan Rockefeller, The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show features a zoo of 75 puppets representing characters from four of Eric Carle’s most well-loved books. In a beautiful celebration of animals and imagination, audience members of all ages visit the worlds of The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mister Seahorse, The Very Lonely Firefly, and (the star of the show) The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show debuted off-Broadway in January 2016 and was nominated for both a Drama Desk Award and an off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best Family Show. TVHCS continues to tour Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and had a limited run in Dubai where it received Time Out’s Best International Performance award. First published in 1969, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold more than 43 million copies worldwide.
In DCT’s production, under the direction of Douglass Burks, four actors bring to life characters previously admired only as Carle’s iconic collage and watercolor illustrations. Upon entering the theater, my three-year-old critic was thrilled to see some of her favorite books on stage, open and inviting. Josh Smith’s set and Samantha Porter’s costumes are clean, simple, and white, allowing Aaaron Johnson’s lighting to transform them like paint from a brush. Porter’s costumes are equal parts service and whimsy, with overalls giving the ensemble a childlike feel.
From the music’s first chord, the energy and enthusiasm of the acting ensemble draws the audience in and along on the journey through Carle’s books. In writing The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Carle wanted to prove that there is no such thing as a wrong color. TVHCS gleefully encourages this point as Teddy Warren engages the audience from the moment he picks up a paintbrush. Children enthusiastically chime in with their guesses on color and animal. Like magic, they appear in the form of life sized puppets. Warren commands the stage with a flourish of his hand while the rest of the ensemble brings his artistic vision to life.
Mister Seahorse is a beautiful story showcasing fatherhood under the sea. Dustin Curry delights in his portrayal of the title character. His facial expressions and movement leave all eyes glued on him as he meets up with other fathers caring for their children. Engaging and poignant, this story connects to young and old alike. The lighting colors transform the set into a magical undersea world full of life and depth.
While beautiful, the show hits a lull in The Very Lonely Firefly. Although we see some of the most beautiful stage pictures within this story including captivating shadow puppetry and a breathtaking moon, this is where your younger audience members may get fidgety. The lighting is much darker, and this section feels longer than the others causing some disengagement from the magic.
The show’s energy ramps back up with the title piece, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and once again audience members hone in on the stage action. Steph Garrett wriggles and inchworms her way across the stage evoking ooohs and aaahs from the children. Audience participation is necessary to the telling of this story as they practice counting and memory skills. The entire ensemble works in tandem like a well-oiled machine to bring us the growing caterpillar and his world. When the butterfly emerges at the end of the show, the audience was spellbound.
Dallas Children’s Theater makes the trek and the traffic worth the trip. An afternoon here is more than just “a show.” It’s an experience. Come an hour early and let your kiddos create their own Eric Carle-inspired masterpiece and pose in front of the beautiful butterfly wings. After the show, meet the actors and pose for pictures with the Caterpillar. Take a stroll through the gift shop to see beautiful books and finger puppets inspired by characters in the show. Not to be missed are the dioramas depicting this season’s shows.
My youngest critic was celebrating her third birthday, and I can’t think of a more joyous place to be. Birthday boys and girls are invited to come down to the stage after the show to be serenaded by the audience. She felt like a queen, but I nearly lost her as she tried to crawl after the caterpillar.
Follow her example and hop, skip, jump, or crawl to The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show.