Dallas — When you’ve got a classic to work with, why mess with success? Dallas Children’s Theater (DCT)’s latest production adapts four of beloved children’s author Eric Carle’s books into a series of mini-stories, with its undoubted star being the titular caterpillar, filled to the brim with puppets of all shapes and sizes that seem to have sprung fully-formed right off the pages of Carle’s stories. Sticking close to the source material works hugely in DCT’s favor: The Very Hungry Caterpillar Christmas Show is nothing short of enchanting. The 50-minute show, which had a sensory-friendly performance this weekend, runs through Dec. 29.
If you have a child or, honestly, if you ever were a child, you’ve read at least one of Carle’s books. Originally published in 1969, The Very Hungry Caterpillar is definitely his best-known work — the book’s been translated into over 60 different languages, and more than 50 million copies have been sold to date. But the 90-year-old writer, illustrator, and designer has written and illustrated more than 70 books in his distinguished career, so there’s an embarrassment of riches when deciding to adapt his works. This production, created by Jonathan Rockefeller of Rockefeller Productions, debuted off-Broadway in 2016, where it was nominated for a Drama Desk Award and an Alliance Award for Best Family Show. The puppets in DCT's s staging use the Rockefeller creations.
This production kicks off with another of Carle’s better known books, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, and instantly puts the audience right inside the story when a giant, articulated puppet of the title character (so large it’s operated by two performers) lumbers through the audience onto the stage, to delighted shouts from the children in the audience. The tremendously talented ensemble cast, consisting of Charli Armstrong, Gerald Taylor, Teddy Warren, and longtime DCT collaborator Douglass Burks (founding member of the Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts and having earned the distinction of “Master Puppeteer”) moves fluidly through the simple story, transitioning through a dazzling array of gorgeously detailed puppets without missing a beat. Each performer manages to create a fully-realized persona for each puppet in mere moments, both in this story and in the ones that follow. The next story, 10 Little Rubber Ducks, the tale of a box of rubber duckies swept out to sea and the adventures that follow, is equally enthralling. And the show’s final segment, adapted from Carle’s Dream Snow, is a sweet Christmas story that ends the piece on a high note and really gives Burks his moment to shine as a Santa-esque farmer giving presents to his beloved farm animals on a snowy Christmas Eve.
But, I mean, come on — we’re here for the caterpillar, right? Thankfully, he does not disappoint. Ensemble member Teddy Warren is a standout in this section of the show, bringing the character of Caterpillar fully to life as he creeps and swirls across the stage in a frenzy of ever-increasing snackery. Audience members were enthralled as Caterpillar eats and eats and eats but, as they chanted along with the show’s narrator each time Caterpillar finished his latest meal, “he was still hungry.” Caterpillar’s final, show-stopping entrance after his transformation into a beautiful butterfly (I can’t believe I hesitated to write that for fear of “spoilers”) was met with shouts of joy.
It’s hard to say enough about the puppets in the piece: each one is fantastic, a four-dimensional rendering of Carle’s illustrations that still maintain the sketchy lines of the original. The set, too, designed by Josh Smith, is minimalistic, but beautiful, white but with a crepe-y texture that picked up colors beautifully, and full of little details that express Carle’s aesthetic. The lighting and sound design (from Aaron Johansen and Marco Salinas) work seamlessly together, especially in the quick changes from animal to animal in the Brown Bear segment.
DCT has also made an art out of the lobby time pre-production; come a little early and you’ll be treated to musicians playing Christmas tunes, a roaring fireplace, Christmas-themed balloon animals from one of Santa’s elves, and even perhaps an appearance from Saint Nick himself. But be prepared: DCT’s merchandise tables are as well-stocked with enticing production tie-ins as always, so I’d advise you to bring cash.
Parents: Make plans to catch this new holiday classic.