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"Mr. Popper's Penguins," a new production by the Theatre of Youth designed for young children (say 3 to 8), is an entertaining, witty, musical adaptation of the popular children's book, directed by well-known area choreographer Lynne Kurdziel-Formato. That means lots of dancing birds and people, which was one of the cutest aspects of this cute show, and no nudity (except for the penguins, those little pigs).

I say it's "cute" because it is that. Although the message of the book, which is to be careful what you long for because -- that's right! -- you may get it, is pretty one-dimensional, it is a funny tome and a funny play, one the children in this audience absolutely loved.

I don't want to give away the plot, but let me say that it involves Mr. Popper, a Walter Mitty-type house painter who longs to see the South Pole and follow the adventures of its intrepid conquerors with rapt attention. His love of Antarctica, in fact, creates an awkward situation that propels this story. It involves the arrival of a penguin named Captain Cook (good work here by Andrew Delo), then another one, then three baby penguins, all of whom charm and torment the depression-era household.

I must say the Poppers take on their boarders with unusual aplomb. Mrs. P (a swell job by Mary McMahon) is a patient but anxious wife, and Janie (Nicole Formato) a pretty adolescent who, with brother Billy (Daniel Korzelius), forms a rooting section for the birds.

Popper is a dapper little man played by baritone Tom Owen, who isn't little, but plays the smallness and enthusiasms of Popper's life quite nicely. His wife and family are fine little singers and dancers, thanks to Kurdziel-Formato. There are many other characters, broadly played as befits the play, but they are all dear and sweet and never over the top.

I thought that Chet Popiolkowski's sets were great, although the sound was overwhelming at times, making it impossible to follow the lyrics.

Yes, well, the lyrics. I thought the first act, which sets up the tale, was too repetitive and cartoon-like for its length. Besides that, its lyrics are really kinda dumb, with endless simple-minded choruses that are repeated and repeated until the reviewer almost treacled out. Way too Winnie the Pooh for my taste, but not, I think, for many in the audience.

As in many plays, however, act two is a horse of another color and wholly fun from top to bottom. With the assistance of a greedy impressario (John Fredo, the best in the biz. Mahvelous!), we see the poverty-stricken Poppers get a little fun out of life as a vaudeville act featuring dancing birds. They get to do all they wanted to do and see the country, which adopts them as among the favorite entertainers of the mid-l930s. (Love the MovieTone "newsreels" that follow their progress.)

It's great fun, quick-witted and the lyrics are more on the money. The sets, whether simple or complex, change quickly and effectively and the plot moves right along. The birds are a total hoot with their tap dances and cartwheels and musical chirps and gobbles. They should, of course, be dead by now of the stage lights alone! So when Mr. Popper gets a chance to fulfill his greatest dream, and give the exploited birds a chance to survive, we cheer right along with the kidlings. Nice little show, all in all.


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