Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical
by Anthony Chase
I will concede that I am not the ideal audience for Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical, now playing its final week at Theatre of Youth’s Allendale Theatre. Based on the book of similar title (Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale) by Caldecott Medal winning author, Mo Willems, the play is aimed at very young children.
For me, however, the tale of pre-lingual Trixie’s trip to the Laundromat with Daddy, reconnected me to my own generation of picture driven children’s books. These books from the late 1950s and early 1960s were about children living in a world that adults couldn’t perceive or could no longer understand.
Recall, for example, Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, in which a four-year-old boy creates the world he imagines, simply by drawing it with his purple crayon. One night he decides to go for a walk in the moonlight. At the end of his adventure, he draws his bed and tucks himself in.
Of similar vintage is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, in which young Max is sent to his room for punishment, and there, he imagines a forest landscape, then an ocean. A boat carries him to land of the wild things, where he is made king and raises a rumpus.
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale was published 50 years after these books, but is of similar caliber. Adults cannot understand little Trixie’s world, because she is still too young to talk.
This is the tale of how a wondrous first trip to a coin-operated laundry becomes traumatic when Daddy accidentally leaves a stuffed toy behind. Trixie, lacking the language skills to tell Daddy what’s wrong, pitches a hissy fit and goes “boneless.” The instant they return home, Mommy observes that Knuffle Bunny is missing. The family races back to the laundry where Daddy retrieves bunny in an act of true heroism. The story ends with Trixie saying her first words.
I remember Maurice Sendak telling me that children love everything about a well-made book: the feel and smell of the paper, the stitching, the pictures, the look of the type. Knuffle Bunny was published with this philosophy. Drawings of the people of the story are superimposed on black-and-white photographs of a real Brooklyn neighborhood. The drawing and lettering amplifies the telling of the story. The emotional texture of the plot is often communicated without words.
The Theater of Youth production of the play, with direction and choreography by Michael Walline, duplicates these qualities with clever sets by Kenneth Shaw and video design by Brian Milbrand. As children enter the theater, they see large screens showing photos of Trixie and her family. I remember that there were five screens, because the little girl in front of me counted them out loud. The Brooklyn neighborhood has been replaced with recognizable scenes of Buffalo. Video magic creates the transition from two dimensions to the real people of live theater. All of the locations of the book are lovingly suggested, and children seemed especially delighted by the clever laundry machines and a black light sequence in which Daddy seems to be swimming in a washer with giant clothes swirling all around him.
Mary Ryan and Sean T. Murphy embody Mom and Dad from the book with great charm. Maria Droz is adorably toddler-like as Trixie. Sara Marioles, Jessica Stuber, and Adam Rath keep the production moving as a variety of characters and as set movers.
Mo Willems has brought an adult consciousness to the script that parents, aunts, and uncles will appreciate—as when Mom recalls that she had a chance to marry someone other than Daddy. The show is mercifully brief, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. As always, the question and answer period with the children is almost as much fun as the show.
Knuffle Bunny has been extended for an additional week at the Allendale Theatre
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