The Velveteen Rabbit is one of my family's favorite children's books... which is why we usually dread seeing it on stage. In the past, we've suffered through a few sleep-inducing adaptations of Margery Williams' classic tale that exuded none of its charm and were overly faithful to the detail-packed text.
That's why playwright Kevin Del Aguila's new interpretation for TheatreWorksUSA is such a treat. His hour-long Velveteen Rabbit is brisk and playful, yet also manages to capture the magic and emotion of the original book. Even better, it's one of those quality family shows that parents will enjoy just as much as their children. (I'm not ashamed to admit that my seven-year-old and I went through half a pack of tissues!)
In case you don't know the story (and really, if you've never read the book fix that right now), it's a simple one: A boy gets a Velveteen Rabbit for Christmas, the two become best pals and the bunny longs to be transformed into a real rabbit (yes, shades of Pinocchio and Toy Story). Although it's told in third person, much of it goes on in the bunny's head, which is one of the reasons it's tough to turn into a lively play. Del Aguila gets around that by using a trio of players (Jim Stanek, John Curcuru and Kristin Parker) to act out the tale, including the long but necessary narration.
The production begins with a kind of prologue, as the three say they want to put on a play, and start rummaging through the toy chests on stage looking for costumes, props and, mostly importantly, a story. Once they unearth The Velveteen Rabbit, the show begins in earnest, but already the playful tone has been set. Stanek, a Broadway vet, plays the Boy and Parker the title bunny while Curcuru is the comic relief as the child's always exasperated nanny. They're all wonderful, but it's the atmosphere that makes the show special. They flit in and out of costumes and characters (at one point nana has a conversation with a doctor, who's represented by a jacket on a coat rack and voiced by Stanek, who's offstage, while the wise old skin horse is conjured from a rocking chair and two canes); rearrange the sparse but creative set and props (pinwheels stand in for springtime flowers) and really commit to the rabbit's emotional journey, so it's always moving, never maudlin.
The play's writer and director, Del Aguila, has worked on other kids' shows I've loved, but he's also an actor who's currently starring as Smee in Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway. I suspect he was influenced by his experience in that show, because The Velveteen Rabbit has a similar sweet and goofy low-tech sensibility that celebrates the power of imagination.
One note: Although The Velveteen Rabbit is generally considered a little kids' book, it can appeal to school-age children too. In fact, the preschoolers we saw at the show, though engaged, didn't always seem to follow the story whereas my second grader laughed (and at the end, cried) throughout. So it's a good choice for families with children of varying ages.
The Velveteen Rabbit is playing through Sunday, January 27, 2013 at the DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street between Union Square East and Irving Place. Tickets are $39 but you can save $10 on select performances by using the Broadwaybox discount code.
All photos courtesy of Jeremy Daniel.