Fort Worth — Intensive planning. Rations painstakingly portioned out. Proper attire laid out with special attention paid to temperature needs. While some would consider this the start of an epic journey, every parent knows it’s simply the process to prepare for a trip with small children. Some days, I find myself questioning if the destination is worth the trouble. Luckily, Casa Mañana knows just how to make a theatrical experience for you and your children entertaining and easy.
Their most recent production of the regional premiere of Mr. Popper’s Penguins is no exception. Based on the delightful 1930’s children’s story by Richard and Florence Atwater, this musical, which premiered in London in 2016 and was in New York later that year, was adapted for the stage by Pins and Needles Productions with original music by Luke Bateman and lyrics by Richy Hughes. (There was a 2011 movie with Jim Carrey, but it changed the story.)
It is irresistibly enchanting for children of all ages. Trekking into the dome, the scenery and stage dressing are reminiscent of a child’s playroom filled with bits of this and that to create everything from an Antarctic glacier to a small-town streetscape. My six-year-old critic desired nothing more than to go and see if they were going to light up the framed scrim upstage. (Spoiler alert: They do!). Director Noah Putterman knew just what toys to lay out to allow four actors to play all the characters in the play—including the penguins! Thoughtfully mastered from the first note of the overture, we were swept into the imagination of Mr. Popper (Kirk Bixby) through a gasp inducing glimpse of his idea of an arctic adventure.
And what an imagination! Bixby delights in the opening number as we see that the painting Mr. Popper has a love of all things Antarctic. Although the town and Mrs. Popper (Amanda Joy Loth) don’t initially share his zeal, they can’t help but be won over when an explorer sends the Poppers their very own penguin, Captain Cook. Through musical numbers, Bixby and Loth delight the adults in the audience as their comfortable relationship becomes a loving partnership. My two-year-old critic found the penguin puppets, designed for the London production by Nick Barnes, utterly delightful. After all, they are the same size as she is! The “Penguin Promenade” left the audience members in giggles as Mr. Popper attempted to explain walking a penguin to the townsfolk of Stillwater.
The show’s appeal extends to audience members of all ages. Actors 3 and 4, played by Rasheem Ford and Kelly Blaze, round out the cast and remain in constant motion throughout the show as they portray townspeople, explorers, and others. This well-oiled machine of a production moves from one moment to the next like lightening captivating the young audience members’ attention while still infusing warmth and love into the story. Captain Cook’s first exploration of the Popper’s home will leave you gasping with laughter as all four actors juggle furniture, a penguin puppet, and a goldfish.
Parents, prepare to smile wistfully as the Poppers reflect upon the changes brought into their life by their little charges. Curious, captivating, and cuddly, the penguins make the Popper house a home and infuse a warmth and love into their lives that they didn’t even know they were missing. Mr. Popper’s brilliant idea to train the penguins for show business lends itself to a fantastic number with all penguins in play and gives Ford a wonderful chance to shine as the production manager.
The closing number brings the entire audience to its feet as you learn what it means to be a “Proper Popper Penguin.” Both my two-year-old critic and my six-year-old critic loved the dance and have taught it to all their friends. Parents will leave the theater humming.
The costumes (Tammy Spencer) reflectively reminded us that this is the story of a bygone era, and the lighting (Samuel Rushen) was a crucial piece in setting the tone and locale of the fast-paced show. And just you wait for the children’s reactions to the penguins!
No production is perfect, and I would like to see the sound tweaked a bit. There were several times where the audience was left straining to understand the words of the songs as they were drowned out by the orchestration, leading to confused little voices missing more as they asked for clarification. Something else to keep in mind, your tiniest theatergoers may need a boost to be able to sit in their own chair and watch the action on stage. Luckily, my purse was up to the task of cushion for my two year old.
Still, as my favorite recurring character the intrepid explorer Drake (Blaze) soulfully decreed, “It’s amazing what patience and training can do.” As it has for generations, Casa Mañana knows how to roll out the red carpet for children. Do yourself a favor: snap a picture with your little critics in front of the oversized show poster in the lobby. Share it to social media with the hashtag #CasaPenguins. You’ll want this memory in your Timehop, and you’ll want your friends to share in it, too. Mr. Popper’s Penguins is definitely worth the trip.
Following its run at Casa Mañana, this production of Mr. Popper’s Penguins will depart for the First National Tour, traveling from coast to coast with a two-week run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. over the Christmas holiday.