If you think you hear the gloriously ingenious cackling of delighted children, it may be emanating from the Family Theater at The Kennedy Center. If it is mixed with some lower-pitched guffaws, those may be coming from the same place, emanating from the adults who have accompanied kids to the world premiere musical Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (The Musical!)
This is one of those productions whose every element feels absolutely perfect; and they all seem to fit together perfectly.
That they do is a tribute to the show’s director, Jerry Whiddon (who for many years led Round House Theatre in neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland).
The piece that Whiddon and co are birthing and passing into the canon of work aimed at young audiences is based on the book of the same name by the wonderful (and wonderfully prolific) Mo Willems. A number of his books are in high rotation when it’s time for me to read with my seven year-old twins. (Willems has now become the first Education Artist-in-Residence at Kennedy Center.)
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! The Musical closes January 5, 2020. Details and tickets
Willems has adapted his book along with the mysteriously named Mr. Warburton. Adapting this for the stage, Messrs Willems and Warburton face the opposite problem to the one faced by those who bring works by, say, Dickens or Austin to the stage. A Willems book can be read in about ten minutes, so here they must expand the material, as opposed to streamlining it.
Musical numbers help, and the score (music by Deborah Wicks La Puma) is a cut above the forgettable filler that you often encounter in stage adaptations of children’s lit.
Two songs into the show, Felicia Curry (she plays the bus driver whose seat the titular pigeon aspires to fill) is stopping the show with her introductory turn. Throughout, Curry brings wit and panache to the proceedings; and choreographer Jessica Hartman sees to it that Curry (and all of the cast) move stylishly. (Curry, it should be noted, pulled a Cynthia Nixon this weekend: she was in this show by day while doing Agnes of God at Factory 449 by night.)
That song is soon followed by Christopher Michael Richardson (he’s the bird) employing the deepest end of his register wonderfully in what I took to be a cheeky pastiche of the kind of soulful ballad that recalls mega-musicals in the vein of Les Miz. Richardson also gives Pigeon a sweetness that is quite poignant.
Watching this cast is like watching a convocation of expert thieves; they each keep stealing the show from one another. Each cameo role is so sharp and clear and distinct that you could be forgiven for being surprised at curtain call that the cast numbers a mere six. (Jeannette Christensen, Costume Designer, executes some astonishing quick-changes.)
Is the guy who plays the superhero movie-loving nerd, freaked at the prospect of being late to a screening, really the same guy who plays the transportation worker bringing on various signs? Yes, he is. (That’s Hasani Allen.) Evan Casey milks every nuance out of mere moments as a hot-dog vendor, and returns soon after to play the uptight dot.comer hoping to hop the bus.
Tracy Lynn Olivera has but one role to nail, which seems, on one level, a waste but, on another, a treat to have her superb gifts applied to a third bus passenger, called Little Old Lady. Olivera, Casey, and Allen, splendid throughout, shine in particular during the “Panic” number, when they realize that the stranded bus puts them all at risk of being late.
(That “Panic” number is among the motifs that will connect to the post-puberty audience more than to the those who are blissfully less obsessed with timetables, punctuality, and the need to feel as if every second of life is being efficiently employed.)
To return to the cast (last but not least!), Erika Rose is simply astounding as she animates the bus engine and then seems to age decades to become the mother of the bus driver. She also is the dog manipulator, one of several expressively-employed puppets. (Puppet Direction is credited to Scottie Rowell, Puppet Fabrication to Carole D’Agostino.) Those puppets also include, of course, the pigeon.
In fact, there are a couple of moments, such as the consumption of hot dogs, that are really quite magical. Where did that big prop disappear to? (Willow Watson is Properties Artisan.) Were those successive, clearly-delivered burps actor-generated, or part of a particularly impressive sound design (by Justin Schmitz)?
The handsome set by Dan Conway accommodates a bus; ladders for actors to climb, surprisingly; and Laugh-In style mini-doors that pop open. (My feeling that this was intentional homage paid to Laugh-In was validated when I heard the line, “You bet your sweet bippy.”) The overall design is so impressive that even the lighting design (by Sarah Tundermann) triggers a laugh.
Laugh-In isn’t the only pop-culture reference that parents and kids’ companions will enjoy. (Did I hear a reference — age-appropriate — to Midnight Cowboy?) And the reliability of public transportation isn’t the only adult-level insight you will hear delivered during this show. (I certainly did hear Oliveri’s pithy line about how quickly children grow up.)
The Willems books (I, as a parent, can attest) are invaluable as tools to help young readers. The themes are, generally, gentle prods intended to socialize children toward empathy and self-realization.
In this case, the theme encourages us to find, and then to do, our own thing. As literature, the book encourages reading. As theater, this show will now encourage a love of the lively arts, because I believe that kids who see it will want to see more live performance.
So, maybe a pigeon shouldn’t drive a bus, but Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (The Musical!) is definitely worth catching.
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (The Musical!) Based on the book by Mo Willems . Written by Mo Willems and Mr. Warburton . Music by Deborah Wicks La Puma . Directed by Jerry Whiddon . Featuring Christopher Michael Richardson, Felicia Curry, Evan Casey, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Erika Rose, and Hasani Allen . Choreographed by Jessica Hartman . Dramaturgy by Megan Alrutz . Music Direction by William Yanesh . Puppet Direction by Scottie Rowell . Scenic Design by Dan Conway . Costume Design by Jeannette Christensen . Lighting Design by Sarah Tundermann . Sound Design by Justin Schmitz . Puppet Fabrication by Carole D’Agostino . Properties Artisan Willow Watson . Production Stage Manager Julia Singer . Produced by Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences . Reviewed by Christopher Henley.