The Children's Theatre last produced its own version of "Mr. Popper's Penguins" in fall 1998. That snazzy staging was directed by noted Minneapolis choreographer Myron Johnson with a relatively big cast and a live orchestra pumping out original music by composer Mel Marvin.
In a time of tight budgets and rising production costs, CTC has chosen to import an economical new adaptation of the 1938 Richard and Florence Atwater novel.
This one-hour show, which comes from the English company Pins and Needles Productions, is clever and entertaining.
The peppy, playful music by composer Luke Bateman is matched by Richy Hughes' smart, adroit lyrics (he rhymes "winter" with "begin ta"). The creative team demonstrates plenty of comic invention. Puppet designer Nick Barnes created the show's expressive penguins. The minimalist set, by Zoe Squire, who also designed costumes, is adjusted easily to suggest far-off locales. Throw a gray-and-white fabric over a painter's cart and you get the mountains.
And the acting quartet, led by Richard Holt in the title role, is quite amiable. They give the puppet penguins emotive inner lives.
Even with all its charm, there's still a sense that we're getting something cut-rate here. This is particularly true with the backup music, which comes via prerecorded tracks.
C'est la vie, I suppose.
Directed by Pins and Needles co-artistic director Emma Earle and adapted to the stage by the whole company, this version of "Popper's" is crisply told. The action still begins in the sleepy town of Stillwater, but this time it's small-town England rather than the American setting of the original play and the 2011 movie adaptation starring Jim Carrey.
There, at 432 Proudfoot Avenue, a house painter escapes his mundane life by reading and taking imaginative flights of fancy. When Mr. Popper paints with the color green, for example, he's transported into a jungle. Gray lands him in the Himalayas, while white fills his mind with images of Antarctica.
But his imagination really comes to life when he receives a special-delivery penguin from the South Pole. The squawky flightless bird, whom he and Mrs. Popper (Monica Nash) name Captain Cook, quickly makes itself at home by hopping on the furniture and exploring with its beak.
Lonely because he's the only one of his kind in the house, Captain Cook soon becomes despondent. But he cheers up when the family gets him a companion from the zoo. And pretty soon there are baby penguins aplenty.
The Poppers train their flappy friends and soon, they're in showbiz.
There are environmental messages embedded in "Popper's" — especially concerning our warming planet — but they are not heavy-handed. Pins and Needles is much more direct in its celebrations of famous explorers, particularly British figures such as Ernest Shackleton.
The actors sell it well. An affecting singer, Holt is honest and sympathetic as the everyman title character. Nash, too, brings understanding as the down-to-earth, reality-based co-captain of the Potter household.
The hardworking cast is rounded out by Susanna Jennings and Christopher Finn, who play all the other characters with gusto.
While adults might kvetch about the canned backing music, the kids in the theater at last Friday's opening were having a blast. In fact, they were so engaged that when one character asked a question of another in the show, a tyke in the audience immediately shouted out her answer. "Mr. Poppers Penguins," it seems, is leading some to new discoveries.