Review: The Velveteen Rabbit at ImaginOn
By Perry Tannenbaum
Beginning with a musical version in 1992, I’ve now seen at least eight productions of The Velveteen Rabbit at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, four at their former location on Morehead Street and four at their pioneering ImaginOn facility near Seventh Street Station. Scott Davidson’s dramatic adaptation of Margery Williams’ classic 1922 book, long a mainstay at Children’s Theatre after the musical version was discreetly discarded, was actually the first show staged in the smaller theater, now named the Wells Fargo Playhouse, when ImaginOn opened in 2005.
The company’s 2021 edition of the story, arguably more relevant for children in the midst of a pandemic, takes us in new directions – with a new stage adaptation by Michelle Hoppe-Long, CTC’s director of education. Hoppe-Long’s Rabbit hopped from page to screen last December with a different cast, a worldwide debut that was still viewable online back in March. Now it’s in its premiere live run.
Over the years, CTC’s Rabbit is likely the company’s most widely-known piece, since it has often travelled across the state in pint-sized portable productions with its travelling troupe, known once upon a time as the Tarradiddle Players. So perhaps the biggest shift between the former Rabbit and the new one is only becoming obvious now, as the ImaginOn staging leaps from the Wells Fargo to the larger McColl Family Theatre. Logically enough, Andrew Gibbon’s scenic design concept has discarded the simple, drab, intimate, and pastel look of the vagabond Rabbit in favor of a sweeping, eye-popping, and technically dazzling spectacle, abetted by Robyn Warfield’s bold lighting design. These flamboyant Disney fantasy elements are offset by Magda Guichard’s earthbound costume and puppet designs.
That same tension between imaginative extravagance and minimalist simplicity is evident in Hoppe-Long’s script and Melissa Ohlman-Roberge’s stage direction. These discordant elements may be viewed as indecision, but it seemed to me that this new hourlong Velveteen Rabbit was consistently plagued with wrong, illogical, and perverse decisions. Most incomprehensible and disastrous was the transformation of the title character from a woman in an outsized bunny suit into a puppet, visibly wielded by an actress bravely striving to deflect attention away from herself.
Why reduce the size, expressiveness, personality, and lovability of your lead character in transit from a small venue to a larger one? Portraying the Rabbit by proxy, Margaret Dalton never gets the chance to equal the exploits of Claire Whitworth-Helm, Lesley Giles, and Nikki Adkins, past greats in the role. And Dalton must also moonlight, without changing her costume, as the household Nana! Occasionally, Dalton’s double duties became awkward and confusing, if not cringeworthy.
In a story about a boy’s toy aspiring to become real, all of this wrongheaded simplification makes it more difficult for toddlers to see that the Velveteen Rabbit is real – and for them to empathize with its aspirations. A whole franchise of Toy Story films is descended from Williams’ story, but Hoppe-Long and Ohlman-Roberge not only change the Old Skin Horse to a less cuddly Rocking Horse, they eliminate or downgrade all the toys and real rabbits that torment our protagonist. These abridgements of the Velveteen Rabbit’s world seemed to compound the audience’s struggle to empathize with her – it certainly compounded mine – because we never felt her pain keenly. And when the family Doctor was also removed from the cast, the Boy’s tribulations were also muted at the dramatic climax when he fell sick. Yes, even the size of the cast was smaller at this bigger venue.
Ironically, simplifying and purifying the Boy also diverts our attention away from the Rabbit. More human stupidity and callousness from Lexie Wolfe as the Boy would have reminded us that the Rabbit should be our primary concern, though she does underscore those moments when the Boy disregards his cherished toy. Surrounded by such Technicolor splendor, it’s hard for Wolfe to break through and impress upon us that the Boy is not completely wholesome – and that his life before he falls ill is not totally idyllic. Instead, Wolfe diverts us with her charm as the Boy roams about with the Rabbit, pretending to be a warrior and pirate while immersing his cuddly toy in his fantasies.
This is the most vivid magic we get, yet Hoppe-Long has contrived to add a little more magic to the Williams yarn, expanding the role of the nursery magic Fairy. The sudden blooming of her presence in the midst of the Velveteen Rabbit’s most extreme desolation is beautifully conceived and splendidly staged, with Reneé Welsh-Noel’s lithe dancing skills adding to the wonder. Yet this new adaptation drops the Fairy into the beginning and middle of the story, where she has never appeared before, somewhat blunting the surprise of her climactic deus ex machina appearance at the end.
Welsh-Noel also moonlights as the Rocking Horse and the Boy’s distant but understanding Mom. There’s a delightful surprise cameo at the end of the show, buried in the playbill credits, when stunt rabbit Brambles replaces the puppet protagonist. Parents and toddlers can decide for themselves whether a live rabbit that must be protectively caged at odd intervals – to prevent it from romping around forever in the audience – enhances or diminishes the nursery magic. For me, it was cute at first, but the benefits didn’t last.
Originally published on 12/6 at CVNC.org