The setup: Though Childsplay first presented The Velveteen Rabbit 25 years ago and it was the company's go-to holiday offering for many years, the past several seasons have featured alternates such as Seussical, Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! and, one memorable year, Lyle the Crocodile, who I hope will return sometime.
This year, many of us (both old and young) get to see the bunny's adventures for the first time, and it's a short, straightforward show featuring almost-magical puppetry and live actors who are nearly magical as well -- a great introduction to theater for sprouts as young as 3.
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The execution: Since quite a bit of Margery Williams Bianco's appealing 1922 story consists of the private thoughts of a stuffed toy and his secret adventures with a small boy, it definitely makes sense to preserve much of the charming third-person narration in this translation to the stage, and veteran Childsplay actor Debra Kay Stevens keeps it warm and engaging in live voiceover. If it helps remind children that books exist and are cool, that's a good thing, too.
Jeff Thomson's set is beautifully detailed but also deceptively simple -- a nursery (the old British term for a child's bedroom/playroom) in which the bed, the toys, and everything else are just oversize enough to make 6'4" actor Eric Boudreau (Rock the Presidents, Head: The Musical), in 8-inch platform shoes hidden under his skirts, appear to be an adult woman who is nanny to the Boy, played by Kaleena Newman (MilkMilkLemonade, A Devil Inside). Outside and above the window is a small garden where the Boy and his bunny can play in fine weather.
The amazing part is all the secret spots where puppeteers can access and operate the toys and other puppets. For example, when the Velveteen Rabbit and the Boy are playing in bed when they're supposed to be sleeping, the Rabbit scurries, hides, and pops out at the direction of the Boy's imagination in ways that defy disbelief. Newman's exuberant, unselfconscious performance combines with Katie McFadzen's operation and voicing of the Rabbit to make it obvious that this toy has become Real.
The verdict: Because I read press releases and most theatergoing families apparently don't, I seemed to be the only person who'd brought her own stuffed toy to watch The Velveteen Rabbit. Algernon, a 44-year-old lime-green bunny, says (very quietly), "I hadn't been out of the house since 1982, but I'm sure glad I went to see all those famous toys in the play.
"The Boy's favorite toy was a rabbit just like me! I belong to a Girl who had bad allergies, so I just stayed in bed a lot and didn't play such exciting games, but now I know that one day I will be a real live rabbit, because of Nursery Magic. That looks like it will be really fun. Whether you're a person or a toy, you should go see The Velveteen Rabbit. Except for being loved by a child, it is the most fun I've ever had."
The Velveteen Rabbit continues with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 700 West Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe through Sunday, December 22. Admission starts at $12. Purchase tickets here or call 480-350-2822.