“Winnie the Pooh,” Zach Theatre’s opening musical in this year’s family series, lets children into the secret of theater. It starts with musician Allen Robertson warming up the audience by teaching the “Winnie the Pooh” dance.
Later he appears on stage with the crew of the play: a set designer, a prop master, a stage hand and a costumer. They are going about their business, but suddenly they notice that there is an audience. Robertson declares, that no, it’s not an audience, it’s the backup dancers. This, of course, brings some giggles.
Indeed, there is an audience, and we’re told that we’ve come two weeks too early. But wait, we’ve paid money for this show! The behind-the-scenes crew will just have to put on the musical for us. They find the book on stage and begin sorting out who will play what.
It’s a delightful twist to this classic tale and the musical, which was written in 1964 by le Clanche du Rand with music from Allan J. Friedman and lyrics by author A.A. Milne and Kristin Sergel. The musical originally just starts with Pooh doing his morning exercises, not this behind-the-scenes crew turned actors vignette.
The twist allows a young audience to not have to suspend disbelief. We know it’s not really a bear, an owl, a kangaroo, a piglet, a rabbit and a donkey. Instead, it’s an adult stage crew trying to play legendary animal characters. We see them try to transform into these animals by finding hats, scarves, shirts, jackets and aprons to fit their characters. We see them give one another stage directions, such as rabbits hop, so hop more.
The fun is that the crew is very similar to their animal characters. The set designer who is chosen to play Pooh (Will Cleveland) is also a slow-motion kind of guy. The costumer (Sara Burke) has a ton of energy and positivity, perfect for Piglet and Roo. She also has the smarts of Owl. Another stage hand (J. Quinton Johnson) becomes the leader and narrator, qualities like Christopher Robin and Rabbit. The highlight is Russel, (Russel Taylor), who has as much enthusiasm as Eeyore, as he gets dragged into this production to play Eeyore and later awkwardly Kanga. He brought the biggest laughs, especially during the song-and-dance numbers.
Throughout, Allen Robertson plays the on-stage musician and coaches the crew-turned-actors on how to sing.
The kids in the audience of Friday night’s opener loved being part of the action. They loved being asked to dance and do the movements with the actors on stage; after all, they are the backup dancers, right? They loved with the actors talked to them.
If you come into this musical thinking you’re going to see a straight version of “Winnie the Pooh,” you might be disappointed, but probably you’ll be delighted with the change.
Zach Theatre’s education director Nat Miller, who directs this show, doesn’t do things in traditional ways. Last year, “The Three Little Pigs” were rock stars. Cinderella was alive in the imagination of a bilingual girl who created her out of a funnel with a doiley on it in “Cenicienta.”
This year, Zach is presenting a storybook season with “Winnie the Pooh,” running now through Dec. 12, the bilingual “Tomás and the Library Lady,” Jan. 15-Feb. 14; “James and the Giant Peach,” Feb. 19-April 10; and “Alice in Wonderland,” March 4-May 14. We can’t wait to see the twists that Miller finds for “James” and “Alice.”
“Winnie the Pooh.” 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 12. An autism and sensory-friendly performance is scheduled for 11 a.m. Oct. 31. $15-$20. Kleberg Theatre, 202 S. Lamar Blvd. zachtheatre.org.