Is there any greater joy in the theatre than experiencing the hushed silence of little persons, all with eyes like Saturn’s Moons, staring open mouthed in wonder and anticipation. Watching the actors on stage weave their theatrical magic, use their voices and bodies to tell stories and thrill and excite with colour, movement, unexpected delight. Waving their fingers in glorious delight at something on stage that has surprised them, piqued their interest, slightly scared them, or emboldened them to boast to a smaller child “I knew it!”.
Captivating an audience of small children is tough, delicate work. Little ones can smell pretension, and be seriously put off by it, more easily than they can smell the contents of the filled pants of their infant sibling. They respond to genuine story-telling, ingenious stagecraft and the glory of the unexpected, even if it might be a little scary or confronting. A Mum or Dad is close by, so being brave is easy – it is finding a show that requires bravery, or at least rewards attention and involvement, that is the modern challenge. With electronic gadgets constantly at hand and the three-minute-attention span mentality on the rise, holding the attention of savvy under seven year olds for sixty minutes is quite a skill.
Now playing in New York and shortly to tour (again) in Australia, and due to play in the United Kingdom in the not too distant future, is a unique and supremely charming hour long entertainment perfectly suited to young and impressionable minds: The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Based on books by Eric Carle and the brainchild of Jonathan Rockefeller, this is that perfect piece of children’s theatre: it makes them listen, think, engage and thrill. Full of vibrant and arresting visual treats, the production encourages imaginations to expand and effortlessly convinces that the power of the imagination, properly harvested, is unlimited.
Combining physical theatre with delicate voicework, diverting choreography, a little magic and some very skilful use of puppets, The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is a Grade A confection: sweet, colourful, enchanting and good for lasting memories. It is almost guaranteed to create a real interest in live theatre in the impressionable minds for whom it was devised. That said, it is appealing to audiences of all ages, as excellent story-telling always is.
Essentially in four parts, and with movement created by Grady Bowman and puppetry design and direction from The Puppet Kitchen’s Eric Wright, Michael Schupbach and Emily DeCola, The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is an absolute, unqualified triumph. If you have a small child, do them a favour and take them to experience this show; if you don’t have a small child, bargain with a parent to release offspring into your care so you can have an excuse to see this wizard delight.
It essentially in four parts, with each part relating to a separate Carle book. Proceedings open with a delightful exposition about the excitement and possibility of painting and art in general: this is based upon The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse. Dressed in a cool children’s television presenter outfit, Weston Long plays the artist who takes blank canvas, chooses a colour and creates something unexpected. Long is a natural charmer and has an easy and sincere rapport with the smallest in his audience – he talks to them, not down to them. They respond by adoring him. When he struggles for a new colour, the littlest in the audience is unafraid to volunteer suggestions. Although, obviously, the choice of colour is pre-determined, there is never any sense of disappointment sweeping through the audience. Long’s infectious openness ensures that his audience keeps onside.
Having chosen a colour, Long paints something and then reveals his painting to his audience. Each drawing is met with satisfied, expectant awe. Each creation is better, more complex, more surprising than the one before it. While Long is painting, other cast members engage in a little choreographic magic with pieces of fabric that represent the chosen colour for the particular drawing. Impressionable minds come to understand that creating art through colour can involve many different forms of art – painting, dancing, fabric magic. Then, after the painting is revealed, a puppet version of the painting is brought to life and engages with the audience.
Waves of pure unadulterated joy flood from the auditorium to the stage as the parade of puppets becomes more exciting, more strange. There are big and little puppets, but each has its unique attribute. Personally, my favourite was the green Lion – but everyone will have their own and probably for different reasons. A polka dotted donkey is a particular treat.
The puppet versions of the drawings are of various sizes and different combinations of the other actors enliven them. Jake Bazel, Ariel Lauryn, Kayla Prestel and Mindy Leanse bring their own personalities, their own communicated warmth, vibrancy and eccentricity to every creation, ensuring that the exotic has an underbelly of relatable calmness and sweetness. It is difficult to remember puppeteers who convey such warmth and individuality to their creations while separately maintaining a veneer of supportive assurance. Everyone here is exemplary, mastering that difficult art of giving life to puppets without giving them independent existence.
Even for an adult, it is beguiling and charming to watch.
Sections based on Mister Seahorse (a beautiful story that demystifies gender roles in child rearing) and The Very Lonely Firefly (full scale Broadway musicals have struggled to have as much impact and simple joy as this tale) follow. The smallest audience members ooh and aah in an unrestrained way, the resolution of the Firefly tale being particularly affecting; the adults merely try to pretend they are not crying.
Then the Pièce de résistance: the tale of the Very Hungry Caterpillar. This is just glorious. The caterpillar himself is gorgeous, a benign exotic and captivating creature. The fact that he can’t stop eating merely adds to his lustre. The smallest audience members delight in his gastronomically inclined voracity and then are genuinely excited when he evolves to the next stage of his existence. The performers imbue the character with real hunger, appetite and delight – you can almost feel the Caterpillar’s mouthfuls going into your stomach so engaging is the work of the actors/puppeteers here.
There is nothing not to like about this production. It is that perfection combination of ambition, achievement and genius. The hard working company make real theatrical magic with good storylines, committed intent and inspired vision.
Do yourself a favour: if The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is playing near you, see it. And take your favourite small person. They will be changed for the better.
To register interest for the UK tour look here: UK Tour – The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show