Sam Breslin Wright in Little Bunny Foo Foo. Photo by Bill Brymer.
Little Bunny Foo Foo
By Anne Washburn
Music by Dave Malloy
Directed by Les Waters
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2018 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Little Bunny Foo Foo fills the informal, post-holiday slot on the ATL schedule that has often been filled with offbeat, family-friendly fare – The Hypocrite’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore comes to mind, but Anne Washburn’s updating of the classic verse reminded me a bit more of Looking Glass Alice when it played in the Pamela Brown. While not as bold and daring in its conception as that amazing production, it finds much of the same balance between the sensibilities of adults and children.
The plot expands upon the classic verse:
Little bunny Foo Foo
Hopping through the forest
Scooping up the field mice
And bopping them on the head
Down came the Good Fairy, and she said
“Little bunny Foo Foo
I don’t want to see you
Scooping up the field mice
And bopping them on the head.”
I’ll give you three chances,
And if you don’t behave, I will turn you into a goon!”
That really does serve as a good synopsis of the play, with the addition of a Catmonster (Bear Brummel), a Fairy Chorus (Andrea Abello, Alaina Kai, Emily Kaplan), and a deadpan group of Gentlemen Toads that serve as house band, accompanying each of the songs with plaintive arrangements (Daniel Arthur Johnson, Luis Ramos, Troy Valjean Rucker, Andy Strain).
Sam Breslin Wright is a silly, resourceful, delight in the title role, carrying the greatest weight in the show with solid comic authority and an embrace of the absurd. He shines in every moment onstage, but most memorably in an extended song in which he plays an Autoharp while thoughtfully, yet hilariously contemplating his plight after his hubris has caused him to suffer. Although Wright is an energetic presence, he underplays this moment beautifully, allowing the goofy costume to accentuate the comedic impact of the lyrics. He interacts with the audience consistently, and in one instance a woman in the front row cradled his face in her hand briefly after being startled by him. The manner in which Wright exploited such a treasured moment was exquisite.
Eliza Bent as Skink is a wonderful comic foil for Foo Foo, and April Matthis brings unexpected emotional complexity and tenderness to The Blue Fairy. Bear Brummel appeared to relish his silent bit attention-getting scenes as the Catmonster hunting down the Field Mice to fill his ample belly. The adult me had to wonder why the Blue Fairy’s estimable power wasn’t applied to him, but, you know what, in fairy tales and cartoons, you just accept such things.
The Field Mice are portrayed by a company of children that push the “aww” factor to pretty high levels, but manage to deliver enough well-timed slapstick and verbal rejoinders to register as more than a passel of cute, scene-stealing munchkins. These kids have game. (Haddie Bauer, Belle Blevins, Brylee Deuser, Cadence Diggs, Abigail Hughes, Ella Jenkins, Brendan Miller, Molly Peters, Austin Ramirez, Vaughn Ramirez).
The songs are loose and a nice departure from the traditional music theatre construction you might expect; rambling storytelling form that is matched by the low-key, character-driven delivery by the cast. Nobody belts out these numbers to “stop the show,” so that the music stays integrated into the tone of the piece. Paloma Young’s costumes are also nicely understated and are deliberately built upon a homemade aesthetic that suggests much more than it qualifies.
You can, and absolutely should, take your own kids to a show that could easily be accepted as simply the worthwhile endeavor of quality family entertainment. But adults will not be snoozing off during the G-rated hijinks. In the same way that Lewis Carroll’s fanciful narratives capture adult imaginations, Little Bunny Foo Foo gives us license to be absorbed into silliness and fundamental moral lessons served up with a very specific and well-honed comedy aesthetic, but the story points also speak to the current American dilemma of renegotiating gender dynamics within the patriarchy.
That may seem an unnecessary burden to lay upon such an easy and light-hearted show, but I don’t believe it is misplaced. The same intelligence with which Washburn and director Les Waters shape the onstage action cannot overstep subtext, and isn’t that what fairy tales have always been about? Foo Foo continues “bopping” field mice on the head fully aware that he is in the wrong and in brazen contempt of the threat of punishment. It’s not at all a reach to find examples of such behavior in ample supply in the news of late.
Little Bunny Foo Foo digs past our adult roadblocks, helping us all rediscover our childhood and the moral foundations of the parable. It is entertainment, but it is also tradition and, perhaps, most importantly, community.
Little Bunny Foo Foo
January 9 – February 4, 2018
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.