The Peter Rabbit Revue
Westport Country Playhouse
April 15, 2000
reviewed by Donald Devet
Larry Engler's Poko Puppets specializes in full-stage productions: puppets, costumes, sets and the movements of the actors are meant to be seen in large venues. The Peter Rabbit Revue is no exception. This hour long musical extravaganza is chock full of popular songs, familiar stories and even an audience sing-a-long.
Peter Rabbit and his sister Moxie (puppeteers in full body costumes) act as hosts introducing the first musical number, "At the Hop." Puppeteers dressed from head to toe in black velvet manipulate four Muppet style rabbits who lip synch to this rock and roll tune from the 50's. In fact, the whole show's soundtrack is prerecorded, which gives the production a polished quality. But any show completely on tape, no matter how well done, which this one is, suffers from an inability to react to audience responses. (If only the audience was on tape, the match would be perfect.)
The show has a few rabbit oriented numbers including a fanciful version of "Easter Parade" with Muppety rabbits wearing hats festooned with found object decorations. The rabbits parade up and down the aisles and even do a little Busby Berkeley style choreography. But the three stories that comprise the bulk of the show--Peter and the Wolf, Tubby the Tuba and Peer Gynt and the Trolls--have nothing to do with the spring holidays. Even though Peter Rabbit narrates Peter and the Wolf, the spirit of a "revue" quickly dissipates. It's jarring to be suddenly thrown into three long stories that have nothing in common with each other, then jerked back into a short "rabbity" musical number.
First up is Peter and the Wolf which is all "show and tell." "Suddenly, the wolf returned," intones Peter Rabbit as narrator. And By George, the Wolf does return. There are no surprises in this warhorse classic, except for the Wolf who seems to have dropped in from another show. He's huge, way out of proportion to any other character in this story. Covered in a mangy avocado green fur which looked like it had seen better days, this full body costume is menacing with a snake-like tongue and rows of sharp white teeth.
The next story, Tubby the Tuba, is performed in black light, a technique that allows puppets to defy gravity. Before this story begins, Peter and Moxie Rabbit spend a few moments making sure the audience will be comfortable sitting in total darkness (required for black light to be effective). This is a thoughtful touch and a little insurance against screaming and crying kids when the room suddenly goes dark.
Some of the Tubby the Tuba characters' features are cleverly animated (eyes, lips) while some of the characters are represented by three dimensional puppets (frog) or a puppeteer in a mask (conductor). This Danny Kaye narrated version is straight from the storybook with all the "he saids" and "she saids" left intact. It's disconcerting to hear characters speak their lines as if they are quoting themselves. This segment points up another disadvantage of taped shows. If a tape must be used, it should at least be edited to sound more like a story being performed and less like a story being told by a storyteller.
The last story, Peer Gynt and the Trolls, is a full blown show all by itself. It's a story of a young man wanting to experience the wide wonderful world and almost ending up the groom of an ugly princess troll. (Are there are beautiful trolls?) Huge full bodied costume trolls cavort around the stage as if trying out for a part in Where the Wild Things Are.
Probably the most magical moment in the whole revue happens in Peer Gynt and the Trolls. While Peer is on his way to seek his fortune, his ship is caught in a terrible storm. Long stretches of fabric suggesting the angry sea toss the miniature ship to and fro. Peer, represented by a hand puppet, is swept overboard. The fabric waves recede to reveal Peer now represented by an actor. The effect is superb.
The Peter Rabbit Revue is a showcase of Engler's 34 years of experience. He knows how to please an audience of children and adults. His character designs and staging techniques are well honed and expertly delivered. But even a seasoned veteran continues to seek improvements. Engler is aware that this show is a hodgepodge from his other shows, and he's concerned that the title may be misleading. But instead of just changing the title, Engler might consider creating a true revue of skits, songs and dances that relate directly to the spring holidays.
Copyright © 2000 Donald Devet