Who knew that 5-year-olds would be ripe for a little Brechtian theater experiment?
At least that’s what “Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play!” felt like during Friday night’s opening at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
The one-hour, one-act musical, which kicked off the company’s season, starts out being somewhat remote from the audience. Then, late in the performance, actors Christopher Michael Richardson and Shinah Brashears, who play the pachyderm and porky best friends, suddenly discover they have an audience. They promptly break the fourth wall, inviting us to sing and clap along to Jerry Whiddon’s bright, colorful staging.
That interactivity — why couldn’t it come sooner? — ignites a connection to a show whose energy and zest had been misfiring before.
“Elephant & Piggie” is something of an odd duck, as you might gather from its cumbersome title.
Young audiences in the Twin Cities are used to different fare than this import from Washington, D.C.,’s Kennedy Center, where it was described as a jolly vaudeville romp. That is not to say that it dumbs down to reach its audience, but it’s just not as sophisticated as, say, CTC’s similarly themed “A Year With Frog and Toad” or even “Diary of a Wimpy Kid — The Musical,” which is pitched to older audiences.
“Elephant & Piggie” takes stories from Mo Willems’ popular children’s books and sets them to music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. The action revolves around friendship.
Gerald the Elephant is big and burly with a heart of gold and a need for companionship. He frets that he’s going to lose Piggie, who is lithe and willowy with lots of confidence and a prickly sense of humor. She reassures him that they’re friends even though, at the moment, she’s gotta go (to the bathroom).
The two start out literally missing each other. He comes searching for her, she’s not there. She comes searching when he has left. When they do meet up, they play randomly. Then the mail arrives: Piggie has been invited to a party by the harmonizing Squirrelles (Jennie Lutz, Justine Icy Moral and Caroline Wolfson), who look like a ’60s girl group. But what kind of party will it be? And what will they wear? Their imaginations take flight.
Both Richardson and Brashears make smart choices in sketching out their characters. They sing and dance (Jessica Hartman did the choreography), letting whimsy and imagination be their guide. They mine humor even as the show seems to meander at first.
While “Elephant & Piggie” didn’t connect as readily with an adult, it seemed to thrill many in its intended audience, especially those who talked back to the performers.
Those marks included cousins Amelia Weller, 5, and Erik Hine, 4, of the northern suburbs. Both left the playhouse smiling after their first-ever live theater performances. Erik volunteered that he liked how Elephant and Piggie “made up songs.” Amelia liked that she got to sing and clap along.
And one little piggy got to go home.