CHICAGO—Sometimes when it feels as though the world has gone topsy-turvy, it’s a soothing delight to be engaged in life-affirming entertainment from a gentler, more rational past. Such is the case with the enchanting “Winnie the Pooh: The New Musical Stage Adaptation.”
Written and directed by Jonathan Rockefeller, who reimagines Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh” as a musical adaptation of A.A. Milne’s 1920 story, this production is as sweet as theater gets. While a show about a bear looking for honey may at first seem like something only for kids, at the show I saw, there were as many adults in the theater as children. It could be that family members just wanted to have an excuse to bring their little ones out after being cooped up inside for so long but, from listening to some of the audience comments, it appeared that adults were happy to be at the show as well.
Produced in association with Disney Theatrical Productions, the story of friendship, kindness, and wonder that has been a beloved children’s tale for more than a century is faithful to the original characters we all know. Indeed, even the most cynical would have to love the charm and innocence of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. This is the kind of uplift and goodness that everyone can appreciate.
As theater goers walked into the theater auditorium, one could hear the sighs of recollection as audience members looked upon the lovely Hundred Acre Wood set by David Goldstein. With a cartoon-style, pastel-colored backdrop of blue sky, wooded greenery, and tree barks, it looks as though one has walked into the pages of the storied animal characters.
The musical unfolds in a 65-minute adventure with larger-than-life puppets that are animated by puppeteers who sound and act like the characters we remember from the Disney film. The story begins as Winnie the Pooh decides to go looking for honey while Christopher Robin is away at school.
It unfolds as the fluffy group of lovable characters romp through the four seasons. These are represented alongside Goldstein’s playful scenic effects. During a windy autumn, leaves drop over the stage as Piglet is almost swept away by a soaring kite. During a snowy winter, flakes of white scatter over the audience as a snow lady with a large hat is taken inside to get warm. As spring approaches, Tigger ruins Rabbit’s vegetable garden; and summertime finds Pooh following buzzing bees into a honey tree into which, of course, he gets stuck.
The appeal of the show are the adorable puppets that were designed and constructed by a team of talented artists of Rockefeller Productions. These larger-than-life bundles of fur and feathers are given such terrific portrayals by performers that you soon forget that there is anyone pulling the strings. It doesn’t take long before one imagines that the puppets have come to life on stage. That has a lot to do with the puppet masters who speak with the tone and personality we come to expect of the Pooh group.
Jake Bazel is a wonder as Winnie the Pooh. He shuffles and speaks with a simple but always cute baritone voice that evokes the naïve spirit of the character. Emmanuel Elpenord is a hoot as the stressed-out Rabbit, hilarious as the depressed, deadpan bass Eeyore, and a riot as the large-winged, bulging-eyed Owl. In addition, Sebastiano Ricci is an energetic and very funny Tigger, Emilie Rose Danno is a terrific Kanga, and Tina-Kim Nguyen shines as Piglet. Although the only human character, Christopher Robin, played by William Dally, is basically a walk-on part, he does serve to bring the show to a happy conclusion.
The classical Grammy-Award-winning original music by Robert and Richard Sherman that accompanies the action adds to the merriment and joy. These include songs such as “Winnie the Pooh,” “A Rather Blustery Day,” “The Whoop-Dee-Dooper Bounce,” “The More It Snows,” “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers,” “Sing Ho (For the Life of a Bear)” and more.
This is a warm-hearted, musical that not only captures the nostalgia of a simpler and more authentic yesteryear, but it also offers a moral about the importance of friends helping each other, the simple joys of life, enthusiasm for adventure, and the human need for a good time.
A gem of a show for children, adults, and families. Indeed, it’s a wonderful musical for everyone of any age.
‘Winnie the Pooh: The New Musical Stage Adaptation’
Mercury Theater Chicago
3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago
Tickets: 773-360-7365 or WinnieThePoohShow
Runs: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Closes: June 12, 2022