Tag Archives: Melissa Ohlman-Roberge

New Techni-Colorful “Velveteen Rabbit” Struggles to Retain Its Aching Soul

Review: The Velveteen Rabbit at ImaginOn

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

“Amos McGee” Takes Us Into Uncharted Pre-K Territory

Review: A Sick Day for Amos McGee at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When you watch the new Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of A Sick Day for Amos McGee, you and your child might not realize that Amos is employed as a zookeeper. You won’t see Amos swabbing down or feeding the animals that he visits – an elephant, a tortoise, a penguin, a rhino, and an owl – nor will you see him sweeping any cages or disposing of any droppings.

The time Amos spends with the zoo animals, to be honest, never looks like work. Thanks to the text by Philip C. Stead, adapted for the stage by Nicole B. Adkins, what Amos does looks exactly like friendship. He sits down to a game of chess with the elephant, races – and discreetly loses to – the tortoise, sits quietly and patiently with the shy penguin, and wipes the allergy-prone rhino’s nose. Time has truly flown by when dusk comes and Amos reads the owl a bedtime story.

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What struck me more forcefully than Amos’s vocation in Scottie Rowell’s puppet design, excellently derived from Erin Stead’s illustration, was his age. He’s elderly. You don’t need much youthfulness or foot speed to play chess, lose a race to a tortoise, extract a hankie from your pocket, or read a book.

So if you come to Wells Fargo Playhouse, you’ll find that Children’s Theatre is carving out a new niche with this leisurely-paced production sensitively directed by Melissa Ohlman-Roberge. It’s theatre for pre-K, and kids that I saw at the opening performance last Thursday seemed to find the pacing perfect. Oldsters and anklebiters are a natural combo, like peanut butter and jelly.

I did begin to wonder whether all the unhurried quality time Amos was spending with his zoo friends was the “sick day” of the title, for it takes up a larger proportion of our time at the theater than it does in the book. And I also began to suspect that Amos McGee wasn’t as fit for Children’s Theatre’s vaunted Kindness Project as it might be for a Friendship Initiative.

All that was neatly sorted out after Amos returned home and his new day began the next morning – a sick day when he just didn’t want to get out of bed. Consternation breaks out at the zoo. Elephant is missing his chess rival, tortoise is raring to race, and rhino is a mess. More than ever, we see that the animals don’t regard Amos as a zookeeper. When he doesn’t appear on schedule, we see that they regard him as a friend and as an integral part of their day. Their healthy day.

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When it becomes obvious to Amos’s friends that something is wrong, the kindness breaks out. Apparently, the animals recognize the city bus that Amos arrives on each day, so they resolve to take it to his house and pay him a visit. I’m assuming that animals who play chess and understand stories can devise ways to take leave of the zoo, pay their bus fares, and squeeze through the entrance to their friend’s apartment. But how do they find Amos’s place? If I figure anything out, I’ll let you know.

What matters, of course, is that Amos is modeling behavior that the animals appreciate, count on, and reciprocate. As the tortoise plays hide-and-seek with Amos, penguin sits quietly with his friend, and owl initiates story time, we’re likely to realize something that probably should have hit us when Amos was well: he gets as much from his friends as he gives.

The three actors who serve as our puppeteers and take turns narrating gravitate toward a middle ground between ninja invisibility and emcee assertiveness, earnestly directing their attention – and ours – toward the puppets most of the time and calmly genial, never loud, in addressing us. Kids are likely to have a lively debate over which of Rowell’s puppet stars we should like best, elephant and tortoise perhaps leading the pack, but a call to express a preference among the puppeteers – Ron Lee McGill, Kevin Sarlo, or Lydia Williamson – will likely be met with blank stares.

All three puppeteers efface themselves sufficiently to allow Amos and the animals to be the stars. They’re like good parents for kids in this pre-K age group, encouraging their children to discover and play without going too far in voicing their views or imposing their structure. Yes, this is fertile new ground for theatre, worthy of further exploration.