Richard and Florence Atwater.
In 1934, the Chicago journalist Richard Atwater suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving his freshly completed children’s book—a charming story inspired by Admiral Richard Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions—unpublished. His wife, Florence, also a writer and teacher, decided to pick up where her husband left off. After publishers rejected the manuscript, she embarked on a series of rewrites and edits, adding a layer of realism to her husband’s fanciful narrative. The book was published as Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a tale of adventure and teamwork that won a Newbery Honor Award in 1939 and has delighted generations of children around the world ever since. Now the classic story comes to life at South Coast Repertory in a stage adaptation by Robert Kauzlaric, with music and lyrics by George Howe.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins begins in the sleepy town of Stillwater, where a painter named Mr. Popper dreams of a life of adventure in far-off places—especially the mysterious, snow-covered South Pole. While Mrs. Popper, much more practical than her husband, strategizes about finding work and paying the bills (no easy task in the midst of the Great Depression), Mr. Popper immerses himself in biographies of the great Polar explorers and marvels at the remarkable creatures in the tales. Although Mr. and Mrs. Popper have a harmonious, loving home, he knows there’s a wide world beyond quiet, monotonous Stillwater.
Everything changes when a mysterious package arrives from the South Pole, sent by the world-famous explorer Admiral Drake. It’s an Antarctic penguin! Suddenly, the Popper’s peaceful home is full of chaos as they learn to care for this curious creature, which they name after the great explorer Captain Cook. Captain Cook terrifies the neighbors, but quickly captures the hearts of the Poppers with his playfulness and inquisitiveness. Another penguin, a female sent by an aquarium, follows, and soon there are 10 fluffy penguin chicks waddling around the house, all named for famous explorers and their patrons: Magellan, Columbus, Scott, Louisa, Jenny, Nelson, Adelina, Isabella, Ferdinand and Victoria.
Mrs. Popper’s practical streak comes in handy as they look for ways to care for the birds and pay the bills. She hits upon the perfect solution: they’ll form a penguin performance troupe to tour the country! Their profits will keep the penguins well fed, and Mr. Popper will get to have the adventure he always dreamed of. Getting the unruly penguin chicks into performance-ready shape is no easy task, but the Poppers bring imagination and determination to the task. Soon, the 12 penguins have a routine that will wow the crowds… if they can just get on stage.
The Poppers Performing Penguins get their big break when entertainment magnate Mr. Greenbaum needs an emergency replacement act at his downtown theatre. The penguins march, tumble and slide their way to success, and Mr. Greenbaum agrees to take them on a national tour. But after several grueling weeks on the road, the Poppers realize that the penguins weren’t meant for an itinerant performer’s lifestyle—and neither are they. To make matters worse, Mr. Popper and his penguins have all landed in jail after an unfortunate altercation with some performing seals. Their adventure hasn’t turned out quite the way they imagined. Just then, a personal hero of Mr. Popper’s appears with a choice that will change their lives—again.
With director and choreographer Art Manke’s sure hand at the helm, a cast of six people and 24 puppets brings this delightful story to life. Audiences delighted in the comedy, precision and exuberance of Manke's previous work at SCR, which includes 2015's hugely popular Peter and the Starcatcher, Noises Off and the Theatre for Young Audiences productions of The Wind in the Willows and Lucky Duck. Manke will also stage the upcoming Amy Freed comedy, The Monster Builder, in spring 2017 on the Segerstrom Stage. Keith Mitchell’s sets, Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes, Josh Epstein’s lighting design, Michael K. Hooker’s sound design, Alby Potts' musical direction and Sean T. Cawelti’s puppets round out the magic. The cast of six skillfully portrays 18 human characters—that’s a lot of costume changes!—as well as animating the 24 puppets involved in the production. Fluffy penguin chicks, floppy fledglings, cops, reporters, explorers and one very menacing seal sweep across the stage in this dizzyingly fun show.
To learn more about Cawelti’s ingenious puppet designs, and how to build penguins from the ground up, check out this article
But for all the utter adorableness of the plush penguin puppets, this fundamentally is a show about the value of difference and the importance of teamwork. Mr. Popper, the town painter, spends his days with his head in the clouds and his heart in Antarctica; and if he’s a little absent-minded as a result, he’s still beloved for the way his imagination and enthusiasm light up the room. Mrs. Popper, however, is ruthlessly practical; she’s gentle but determined in tackling the many problems that confronted American families during the Great Depression. When they are suddenly faced with the prospect of caring for 12 Antarctic penguins, it takes both Mr. Popper’s big dreams and Mrs. Popper’s skillful planning to imagine a future for their unusual new family.
And this fall at South Coast Repertory, the story that Florence and Richard Atwater dreamed up has found a team that will bring this tale to a new generation.
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