Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie have starred in a number of books over the course of the past dozen years. Late this year the duo at the heart of My Friend is Sad, Should I Share My Ice Cream?, I Am Invited to a Party! and many more greet the youngest local theatergoers courtesy of First Stage’s production of Elephant and Piggie’s “We are In a Play!” The First Stage First Steps program welcomes audience members as young as 3 years of age to a fun, little one-hour program that’s comfortable for even the shortest, little attention spans. Emotionally warm comedy is punctuated by pleasant musical interludes. The action takes place on a fun, little Vaudeville-inspired Emily Lotz set with a design inspired after Mo Willems’ art. Lyndsey Kuhlmann's costuming maximizes the central two actors’ personalities without encumbering them with anything more than grey and pink casual wear.
James Carrington and Rachael Zientek star as Elephant and Piggie respectively. Carrington is suitably anxious as Gerald the Elephant. Carrington summons a pleasantly lumbering presence that contrasts well against the exuberant comically dynamic energy of Zientek as Piggie. The playful rapport between Zientek and Carrington plays well to the close friendship of the two characters. The two actors have a pleasant connection which carries the center of the whole story for a full hour. From the beginning, the central conflict of the play is firmly established: Elephant and Piggie are going to spend the day together. Are they going to have fun? What if something goes wrong? And what are they going to do anyway? The two are accompanied by a rotating child cast who play various roles including the adorably cool Motown-inspired three-part-harmony of The Squirrelles
Willems serves as more than just the inspiration of the production. The author of both Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus AND Don’t Let the Pigeon Run this App (the iPad adaptation of the popular children’s book) wrote the script for this stage adaptation of a few of his Elephant and Piggie books. The script features the distinctively quirky sophistication of Willem’s humor.
Somewhere near the end of the show, the title characters become aware that they’ve been onstage performing the whole time. Elephant, Piggie and their Squirrelles enjoy playing a few games with kids and adults in a fun, energetic bit of audience participation. The clever humor of the show switches gears and the conflict shifts. Elephant and Piggie's concern over whether or not they'll both have fun fades away. As the end of the performance approaches, the two friends wonder what’s going to happen when they reach the final page of the script. Naturally, since this is a light Willems comedy, it all turns out alright in a warm, comfortable hour with a couple of genuinely engaging actors accompanied by a rotating children’s cast. Director Matt Daniels makes gives the silliness of the comedy an emotional weight that casually introduces conflicts without compromising the vibrant sense of fun that engages even very, very young kids. My youngest daughter is quite sophisticated for her age, gradually edging out of the ideal age range for First Steps shows, but she loved what Daniels, Carrington, Zientek and company have put together. Children's fare for the youngest audiences doesn't often have a very wide appeal beyond the very youngest audiences. Willems has written a script for tiny kids that also holds an appeal for slightly older kids and the adults who bring them to the show. A show like Elephant and Piggie doesn't come along all that often.
First Stage’s production of Elephant and Piggie’s “We are In a Play!” runs through November 3 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on 325 W. Walnut St. For ticket reservations and more, visit First Stage online.