Mr. Popper’s Penguins Arrives at Wheelock Family Theatre
Musical adaptation of beloved children’s classic runs through March 3
This story was originally published in BU Today on February 8, 2024. By John O’Rourke | Photos by Jake Belcher
A year ago, Wheelock Family Theatre was overrun by a family of adorable ducks when it produced the world premiere of a musical version of Make Way for Ducklings, perhaps Robert McCloskey’s most popular children’s book. Now, birds of another feather have taken up residence on Wheelock’s stage with its latest production, Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
Running February 10 through March 3, the play, like the classic children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater it’s adapted from, is the story of a struggling house painter in Minnesota who dreams of adventures to far-off lands. His life changes when he is gifted a live penguin, Captain Cook, by an Arctic explorer he’s befriended. When Mr. Popper and his wife discover that the penguin’s health is failing, they consult a nearby aquarium for advice. As fate would have it, the aquarium also has a penguin—a female named Greta—in need of companionship. Soon Greta arrives on the Poppers’ doorstep and before long the feathered couple are raising 10 hatchlings, turning the household upside down.
In order to pay for their care, Mr. Popper trains the penguins to become a circus act that travels the country. But he and his wife come to realize that life on the road is no life for a penguin. The couple ultimately accompany the penguins to the North Pole, where they’ll be more at home. The show, with its emphasis on wonder and imagination, its exploration of what it means to be a family, and its sweet and gentle songs, makes it a perfect fit for WFT, says Nick Vargas, Wheelock’s associate artistic director and education director.
“The story explores the themes of caring for others and finding silver linings in tough times,” Vargas says. “We’re excited to have audiences join us to find out what happens when what you’ve always wanted and dreamed about comes true.”
The show was originally commissioned and produced by Lifeline Theatre in Chicago in 2015 and subsequently has been staged across the country, including at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Md. Vargas had worked at Imagination Stage prior to coming to Boston and he’d heard from former colleagues how popular the show had been there. After reading the script and listening to the music, he knew it would make for an exciting production for Wheelock.
The story explores the themes of caring for others and finding silver linings in tough times. We’re excited to have audiences join us to find out what happens when what you’ve always wanted and dreamed about comes true.
“I love bringing theater to audiences of all ages,” he says, “but it’s particularly important to have productions, like Mr. Popper’s Penguins, that allow younger audiences to see theater, many for the first time.”
Unlike Make Way for Ducklings, where the birds were played by actors, in Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the birds are puppets manipulated by actors who double as puppeteers. The puppets were created by Alex Vernon for the Imagination Stage production. Penguins director and choreographer Ilyse Robbins says that teaching the show’s actors how to bring the puppets to life has proven something of a learning curve for the cast.
“There are many challenges working with puppets, especially if you’re an actor first and not used to puppets, because you’re used to being the character yourself and the attention being on you, the person,” Robbins says. “Often when you’re puppeteering, you need to focus the attention on the puppets so that the audience will focus on the puppets. It’s giving life to an inanimate object.”
Robbins knows firsthand how challenging that can be, having choreographed a production of the Tony Award–winning Broadway show Avenue Q, made up largely of puppets, for Lyric Stage, back in 2012.
“It’s a different tool from my toolbox, but it’s something that I enjoy,” says Robbins, who has won multiple Elliot Norton Awards, Boston’s highest theater honor, for both choreography and directing.
To help get the puppeteering right, she arranged for the puppets’ creator, Alex Vernon, to come to Boston and give her and Russell Garrett, one of the actors, a tutorial on what each puppet was like, how each one worked, and how to make the puppets look like they’re listening and engaging with the actors and one another. She then invited Roxanna Myrhum, a veteran puppeteer who was formerly with Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline (now with Boston Lyric Opera) to help guide the actors on where to put their focus and how to work the puppets convincingly. All six of the show’s actors take on some puppeteering duties. The cast also watched a BBC documentary about penguins to better understand how they move and communicate.