From left to right are Mr. Popper (Richard Holt), Captain Cook (Christopher Finn), Greta (Susanna Jennings), and Mrs. Popper (Monica Nash)
PHOTO BY DAN NORMAN
Oftentimes in theater, we expect productions to have grand gestures, alarming conflict (to coincide with meaningful resolutions, of course), and deep underlying themes when sometimes all you need is a simple story about an endearing couple and their 12 penguins.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, written in 1938 by Richard and Florence Atwater, is a winner of a John Newberry Medal and is beautifully adapted for the stage by Pins and Needles Productions, a theater company based in the UK.
For those of you who have not read the children’s classic (I recommend that you do—even adults can take away a thing or two from kids’ literature!), Mr. Popper (Richard Holt) is a poor painter who lives with Mrs. Popper (Monica Nash) in the small town of Stillwater—yes, Stillwater, Minnesota. Although he does his job well, his mind is elsewhere, day dreaming about the great unknown. Mr. Popper is especially enthralled with the Antarctic and a radio show that keeps listeners in the know about a certain expedition that is happening at the time. As a response to some fan mail Mr. Popper had sent the Admiral in charge of the expedition, he receives a crate that holds a penguin whom he promptly names Captain Cook.
A series of events leads to Captain Cook having penguin babies with his mate, Greta, and together with the Poppers, they all begin their own traveling theatrical production—until a new opportunity for adventure arrives (I’ll keep that part a surprise).
There are many heart-warming songs and loving moments between Mr. and Mrs. Popper, but it’s safe to say that Captain Cook, Greta, and the baby penguins steal the show with their silly antics and mischievous behavior. Expertly handled by Susanna Jennings (Greta) and Christopher Finn (Captain Cook) and created by Nick Barnes (who also created the puppets for last season’s Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax), the penguins are surprisingly agile, with flapping wings, the ability to open their beaks, and wheels to make it look like their feet move on their own. The fluffy baby penguins are less intricate but prepare yourself—your heart will feel like it’s bursting from the cuteness. Although the cast is incredibly small, the transitions between characters were effortless executed. I was equally impressed by the performers’ ability to act their parts and handle a penguin or two at the same time.
My favorite parts of the play, however, had everything to do with the children attending. They found the penguins absolutely magical. Their glee was evident by the fits of giggles when the penguins would stir up trouble or make a funny sound. Even the older kids in the audience oooohed and ahhhhhed as snow fell from the sky and floated down onto the crowd. One little girl made the whole theater erupt in laughter after Mr. Greenbaum—the famous theater producer responsible for the Poppers’ success—loudly proclaimed to the audience, “LADIES AND GENTLEMAN…” to which her three-year-old voice in the front row excitedly responded, “WHAT?”
Some adult viewers may quietly feel hung up on the believability of the storyline, lack of significant conflict, or the silly life decisions the Poppers make—I know I did at the beginning. But if you start feeling this way, choose to listen to the reactions of the children around you instead. Their joy and wonder will speak louder than your questioning thoughts about feasibility, I can promise you that.