“Sophisticated” and “elegant” might not be words you’d expect to read in a review of a musical aimed at children, but Imagination Stage’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins embodies both. Harkening back to classic productions like Annie and 42nd Street, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, with a book by Robert Kauzlaric and music and lyrics by George Howe, transports the audience to the Depression-era 1930s fictional small town of Stillwater, an enjoyable place to spend an hour — although protagonist Mr. Popper only dreams of leaving for an Antarctic adventure.
The mood is set before the show even starts, as the curtainless set is both halcyon and intriguing; hats off to Andrew Cohen for the stunning and immersive scenic design. The musical, based on the 1939 novel of the same name, tells the story of Mr. Popper, played by Jonathan Atkinson, and his wife, Mrs. Popper, played by Edima Essien, and the way an unexpected delivery of a penguin eventually leads them to overcome their financial troubles. A strength of the show is that it is not in any way “dumbed down” for the young audience. It is sophisticated, believing that children are intelligent enough to grasp its concepts and themes, and they absolutely do.
The cast of four adults is superb. Atkinson is a vibrant and expressive Mr. Popper; he has a magnetic presence and is a true entertainer. He commands the stage and makes it all look easy. Essien’s Mrs. Popper is a perfect counterpart as the realist, devoted, loving, and sometimes skeptical partner. She’s also a strong woman who is the brains behind the operation. It was a delight to watch her break out in a peppy timestep dance move during their act toward the end of the musical.
The talent continues with the ensemble of two gifted actors who make the cast of four seem like 20: Sylvern Groomes Jr. and Karen Vincent. Each plays an impressive number of different characters with aplomb, humor, and skill. Groomes especially shines as vaudeville manager Mr. Greenbaum, and Vincent nails an irreverent Sir Francis Drake who had the audience laughing every time.
The set, lighting (Sarah Tundermann), and props (Molly Singer) come together to tell this expansive story in just 75 minutes. Whether it was the lighting behind the windows showing day turning to night, or snow falling gently showing fall turning to winter, everything is flawless. There are numerous thoughtful, subtle, and historically accurate details, like a “Piggly Wiggly” stamp on the Poppers’ paper grocery bags. The most memorable props, of course, are cast members themselves: the penguin puppets! Alex Vernon is a virtuoso. He has designed multiple puppets of different ages and sizes that are expressive, show movement, and are seamlessly operated by the cast. From their blinking eyes and waddling feet to their adorably wiggly little offspring, these puppets send the audience into cuteness overload.
Another element this musical gets right is the costumes. Ivania Stack might as well be a wizard for convincingly costuming the same two actors as characters that range from a barber, to a bus driver, to an uptight neighbor, to a theater usher, and on and on.
The music in Mr. Poppers Penguins, thanks in part to musical direction by Deborah Jacobsen, is exquisite. For the first half of the musical, the songs are jazzy in a mellow way, and elegant. When Mr. and Mrs. Popper begin to train their penguins for a vaudeville act, the musical takes a dazzling turn to show business, and the music reflects that. Their “show-within-the show” at the Regal Theater is full of pizazz and razzle-dazzle, while also being uproariously funny. Of course, show business life isn’t for everyone, and the Poppers soon realize it’s definitely not for them. They receive some tempting offers as to what to do next, including an offer that might put them on “easy street” (a subtle nod to Annie, which is set in the same time period), and they put the penguins first in their ultimate decision.
This musical feels grown-up and classic while still being enjoyable for the young audience members. There are several time-period slang words used, like zowie, hotsy-totsy, and swell. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) is mentioned, but not explained, and though adults and older children might know this is the Great Depression, younger ones most likely will not. But the financial strain and stress are clear regardless. My own son whispered to me his idea for how the Poppers could make money early on in the performance; he was genuinely concerned about the characters’ welfare, which means the entire cast and crew have triumphed.
It’s worth mentioning another commendable aspect of this (and all Imagination Stage shows): there is really not a bad seat in the house. The style of the stage itself and the wise direction of Nathaniel P. Claridad ensure that Mr. Popper’s Penguins is engaging and accessible to every member of the audience.
When you go, don’t miss the Smithsonian National Zoo’s mini-exhibit on penguins in the front lobby. Children can see the heights of various types of penguins, use a whiteboard to draw penguin feet, and learn fun penguin trivia.
Best for ages 3 to 10.
Running Time: On weekdays: 75 minutes, no intermission. On weekends: 90 minutes with intermission.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins plays through August 7, 2022, at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($12–$36, with group rates available), call the box office at 301-280-1660 or purchase them online.
COVID Safety: For performances of Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Imagination Stage requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination for ages 5+ at weekend performances only. For patrons coming to see Mr. Popper’s Penguins, everyone age 2 and up is required to wear a mask while in the Lerner Family Theatre. Imagination Stage’s complete COVID-19 Safety Precautions are here.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins>
Book by Robert Kauzlaric
Music and Lyrics by George Howe
Based on the novel by Richard and Florence Atwater
Directed by Nathaniel P. Claridad