Dallas — It’s a thankless task, adapting a classic; the purists will hate any changes, but if you hew too close to the original, well, why even bother? Thankfully, Dallas Children’s Theater and Soul Rep Theatre Company have collaborated to find a perfect balance, putting up Jerome Hairston's adaptation of Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day and Other Stories that is full of all the heart and spirit of the original with their own particular spin.
The production details the everyday adventures of Keats’ most frequent subject, a little boy named Peter. The show begins with Keats’ most famous work, The Snowy Day. In it, little Peter (Gerald Taylor II) wakes up one morning in his Brooklyn apartment to find a miracle outside his window: fresh snow. Waving goodbye to his mother (Jori Jackson) and donning his trusty red snowsuit, Peter ventures out to explore this wonderland, making tracks in the fresh snow, avoiding the big kids’ snowball fights, building a snowman, and making snow angels. Peter comes home to his warm house to tell his mother all about his adventures while having a nice hot bath. Peter’s adventures continue through the show, as he learns to whistle so he can call his dog Willie, finds a pair of motorcycle goggles that he and his best friend Archie have to keep out of the clutches of the big kids (with Willie’s help, of course), and fights a rainstorm to send an invitation to his friend Amy for his birthday party. While the adventures are on a small-scale, the stakes always stay high.
Under the direction of Soul Rep Artistic Director and co-founder Guinea Bennett-Price, the show utilizes a clever mix of live action and puppetry, both shadow puppets and handheld puppets (design by Kevin Copenhaver and Christine Campbell), to create action that bursts off the stage into the audience. The shadow puppets are beautifully evocative of Keats’ original illustrations, and the handheld puppet of Willie the dog—operated by actor Aaron Jay Green, who otherwise served as the primary narrator for the production—was by far the audience’s favorite element. Every time he left the stage, I heard more than one child ask, “Where did the doggie go?”
The performers were uniformly good, childlike without being cloying—very tricky. Taylor convincingly transitions Peter from a very young child at the beginning of the production—so young he doesn’t understand where the snowball he brought inside and kept in his pocket overnight went—to an older boy concerned with how his friends will react to him inviting a girl to his birthday party. Jori Jackson portrayed not only Peter’s mother, but co-narrated several segments with Green, and played Peter’s friends Archie and Amy, giving a distinct flavor to each character.
The set design (scenic design by Josh Smith) is simple, but effective, using the burnt orange, lavender, and yellow aesthetic Keats favored in many of his illustrations, and using simple indicators to clue the audience in that the show was transitioning to a new segment—a snow drift gave way to a street light, and so on. And the costume design (Niki Hernandez-Adams), too, evokes the books—Peter’s iconic snowsuit is the perfect shade of orangey red, and the rest of the cast is pitch-perfect in their 60s/70s duds. Another important element is the lighting design (Aaron Johansen)—the gobos used to create a heavy snowstorm, covering the stage in falling snowflakes, provoked oos and ahs from the kids in the audience.
A very mild warning: although the show is marketed for kids “3 and up”, there are a few elements that might be slightly intense for the younger end of that spectrum. In the sequence where Peter and Archie find motorcycle goggles, Peter puts them on to pretend to drive a motor cycle, and there’s a sudden shift in lighting and a loud motorcycle engine noise that made a few little kids jump (including one of my own). And later in that same segment, there’s a chase sequence that my three and a half year old was a little scared by. These scenes really aren’t particularly scary, but if your child is sensitive to such things, be aware.
So come to Dallas Children’s Theater to enjoy this funny, action-packed co-production adapting the work of a trailblazer of children’s literature, and walk out with Peter and his friend into the deep, deep snow. You won’t regret the trip.