TOOELE — I love when a theatre company chooses the perfect production for its performance space, and tonight’s show, Winnie the Pooh Kids, was set in its own “hundred acre woods” at the Wigwam amphitheatre in Tooele, where even a couple of deer came to peek in on Tooele Valley Theatre’s production. It was a privilege to review this production directed by Brianna Lyman, with book by Cheryl Davis and music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman, Robert Lopez, and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.
As I sat waiting for the show to begin, I was able to take in the set. The naturally wooded background was the ideal location for the set design by Collin Ray. Two platforms, one with stairs going up and one with a slide coming down, were connected by a wooden foot bridge. The foliage paintings (set paintings by Aleta Boyce) were in a watercolor style and in the soft yet bright color palette found in the early colored illustrations by E. H. Shepard for A. A. Milne‘s Winnie the Pooh books. The softness contrasted nicely with a dark stone work found on the second platform. A dozen various sized honey pots, in warm tones, littered the set. I loved that each pot had a middle band that was reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh with his red shirt.
As the show started, the music grew as the cast of sixteen young actors came into the performance space through the audience. Well, fifteen actors, actually . . . Tigger (played by Abigail A.) came bouncing in after the others, which felt entirely appropriate for Tigger. I was impressed with the cast’s articulation as they sang the opening number. I could understand every lyric — which is not always the case, even with more experience performers. My main struggle with this production was hearing some of the softer voiced performers, even from the front row, and I did miss a few of the beginning character introductions in the song for this reason. However, these performers did remarkably well, considering that they were performing in an outdoor space without microphones. I suspect that their ability to project will grow with each performance.
Two performers were able to project very well for the space. Owl (played by Lexi H.), and Rabbit (played by Scarlet C.), were both great assets to the cast. Lexi’s voice lent volume, depth, and texture to the company numbers. At one point during “Backson,” the cast’s tempo got out of sync with the accompaniment. The cast remained in character and on key, even though they lost the music temporarily. As the cast quieted their singing to better hear the music, Scarlet found her spot and rallied the rest of the cast with her strong voice.
I loved Lyman’s directing choice to use older kids in the leading roles. It was clear that older cast members were examples and leaders to the younger cast members, although the younger cast members had their own strength as well. The entire cast worked well together, and it never once felt like one cast member was trying to compete for the audience’s attention.
I was also impressed with Emelie Shinn‘s choreography, which found a balance between pushing the performers, while not dumbing down the choreography. Of course, actors botched a step here or there, but they always quickly got back in sync with the rest of the cast. One strength of the choreography that I loved was that not everyone on stage was doing the exact same movement, which is often the case with young casts. For example, during the “Winnie the Pooh” song in the opening and closing that the movements of Winnie the Pooh (played by Maria S.) drew my attention at just the right moments (though her voice was sometimes overpowered by the company), especially during the ending chorus of “The Tummy Song.”
When I asked by eight-year-old daughter what she liked best about the production, her answer came quickly, “Tigger!” I must agree with her that Abigail A. was fabulous as Tigger, from capturing the slight lisp, to her tumbling skills that had her flipping and bouncing across the stage. Her curly hair also added to the bouncing aurora that surround Tigger. Although one of the quieter voices at times, her energy was boundless.
I adored the costume designs by Maryn Ray. Each costume was simple clothing and basic ears that led me to recognize each character. It was a clean look that avoided a crazy approach of making the actors look fully like animals. From Owl’s brown argyle sweater vest, to Pooh’s red T-shirt and yellow shorts, to Tigger’s black and orange turtleneck, there was a unified design for the show. I also loved the variety of clothing types among the narrators: each in solid, bright colors, with matching sneakers is their designated color. Some narrators wore a dress, others wore leggings with T-shirts, while another wore a jumpsuit. The variety added visual texture, while the color palette and similar show style added cohesiveness.
This production of Winnie the Pooh Kids, with a run time of about 30 minutes, has something for all ages, but is an especially great show for children just beginning to experience live theatre. Anyone in the Tooele area this week would be as wise as Owl to squeeze one last activity into their kids’ summer by attending Tooele Valley Theatre’s Winnie the Pooh Kids.
Note: UTBA’s editorial policy is to refer to actors by their name as it appears in the production’s program. Tooele Valley Theatre’s program only provided the actors’ first names and an initial. We respect this choice by following the same usage.