Almost a century after it was first published, Margery Williams' 1922 picture book, The Velveteen Rabbit, continues to endure as a classic that's beloved by kids and adults alike. While the story about a toy rabbit who longs to be real has been adapted as a stage play numerous times, Atlantic for Kids opted to turn it into a world premiere musical. Going in I feared it might be cheesy, that singing and dancing would ruin this delicate tale. But as my 7-year-old daughter observed at the end, "It was simple but so good."
The Linda Gross Theater has been completely reconfigured for The Velveteen Rabbit. The audience sits on benches arranged around the set, which makes it feel cozy and intimate. Upside: There's not a bad seat in the house! Downside: If you have to leave for whatever reason during the performance, you won't be allowed back inside the theater, so we made sure to hit the bathroom before showtime. The lighting is low and the set is simple with a few toys strewn on fake grass, and cutouts of stars on the ceiling. We spied quite a few kids with their own toy rabbits in tow, including my 5-year-old.
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No furry suits here! The Velveteen Rabbit is conjured through bunny ears and the audience's imagination.
Directed by Anya Saffir, the story has been condensed to its essential elements. Without any fanfare, a Boy (Wesley Zurick) emerges and sits on the ground, and starts playing with the toys. The lights dim as the chorus marches out, singing about making a toy rabbit with velvet and sawdust. We watch as the Boy receives the Velveteen Rabbit (Jessika Doyel, looking like a human save for her bunny ears) on Christmas morning but quickly gets distracted by other playthings. Once in the closet, the Velveteen Rabbit meets the other toys, including the Skin Horse who teaches her about nursery magic. Soon she embarks on an emotional journey as she becomes close with the Boy and grapples with her desire to become real.
The set, songs and costumes are all straightforward and unadorned, so the kids (and grown-ups!) in the audience are encouraged to use their imagination. Much of the narration and dialogue are sung a cappella, although at times there's a soft cello and guitar accompaniment. The songs are catchy and move the story along quite well, and make the transitions between different parts seamless. Book and lyrics were by Saffir and Cormac Bluestone and music by Bluestone.
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The theater's circular seating provide for an intimate production.
The simplicity of the approach highlights the performances, which make the production so moving and effective. As the Velveteen Rabbit, Doyel, an alumna of the prestigious Atlantic Acting School, is effusive, energetic and earnest. The chorus members pull double duty by playing several supporting roles. My girls really loved an early scene in which the toys are all brought to life with joy and creativity by the actors, and there's a raucous, expertly choreographed number by the playthings that got the audience smiling and laughing. Of course the heart of the tale is the bond between the Boy and the Velveteen Rabbit, and the scenes chronicling their burgeoning friendship are sweet and inspired some in the audience to tear up, including my daughters.
I highly recommend this musical, especially for families who already love the book (and if you've never read it, do it now). It's a quality production that will leave you and your children glowing. The show is officially aimed at ages 3 to 9 and my two children, 5 and 7, were deeply engaged, but so were all the kids we saw, ranging from preschoolers to tweens. After it finished, I overheard several grown-ups and their children exclaiming how wonderful it was. It beautifully embodies the charm and spirit of the book while giving it a fresh twist.
The Velveteen Rabbit is playing at the the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, through Sunday, November 1. See the listing in our event calendar for schedule and ticket prices.
All photos by Ahron R. Foster, courtesy of Atlantic for Kids.