The world premiere of the new musical Peter Rabbit at Red Branch Theatre Company in Columbia finally puts to rest one of life’s great riddles: Why are bunny tails so short? Answer: To keep tiny young playgoers from squirming in their seats.
At only 90 minutes including intermission, Dustin Merrell’s original musical doesn’t so much run as hop along on its own merry way. That doesn’t leave the next generation of theater-lovers much time to fidget.
Not that the audience here is ever very still. When Peter and his siblings Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail jump off the stage in their game of hide-and-seek, the pajama-clad ticket-holders can hardly contain their excitement. And when Peter asks them to send old Farmer McGregor off in the wrong direction so he can get away, they all prove wildly eager to oblige with screams, laughter, and finger-pointing thrills.
Dustin Merrell, the music man in residence at Red Branch, finally gets a chance to sit back and hear his own music and lyrics on stage. And he has come through with a thoroughly delightful score, filled with moments of tender lyricism (“Mrs. Rabbit”), upbeat humor (“A Little More Hope”), and dazzling star turns (“Kit the Cat”).
Adapting his plot from the Beatrix Potter stories, the play involves Peter, as usual, innocently disobeying his mother to sneak through a fence into Mr. McGregor’s farm. Nothing truly yummy can come of that, and Peter ends up fleeing for safety, losing his coat along the way.
To get his coat back, Peter seeks the advice of field crows, river critters and barn rodents. Finally he turns to wise old Benjamin Rabbit, who enjoys lounging in his library, pondering the great novel he will some day write. (Psst! Benjamin! Here’s a working title for you: Warren Peace. You’re welcome.)
All of the action is wonderfully staged by Director Janelle Broderick around the clever work of Scenic Designer Bush Greenbeck. Greenbeck places his set pieces before a giant canvas storybook whose pages are peeled away to provide the backdrops for the various scenes. Well done.
Amy Rawe Weimer contributes the variety of fanciful costumes that suggest the animal personalities in an often amusing manner.
Aaron Broderick conducts the music, getting a variety of sounds and moods out of the largely synthesized arrangements. It is the perfect accompaniment for the talented singing voices in the cast.
Brian Patrick McNally makes an appealing Peter Rabbit, naughty but innocent, courageous yet filled with doubt. Still, this is more of an ensemble show in which every company member is given a chance to shine.
Amanda Spellman keeps the vocal bar high as Mother Rabbit, selling all those heartfelt maternal feelings in her big solo moments. Gavin Shown as wise Benjamin Bunny and Tierra NiCole as Kit the Kat project big personalities that dazzled the opening night audience.
Jennie Phelps, Rick Westerkamp, Katie Ganem, and Stephanie Lynn Williams were all enchanting in their variety of supporting roles. And let’s not overlook the dynamic presence of company stalwart Cory Jones, who electrifies as both the scary Mr. McGregor and the amiable father figure, Mr. Rabbit.
Both the young and the young-at-art will just love this world premiere of Peter Rabbit, so hop over and buy some tickets. They will make a great holiday gift! A least, that’s my hutch.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.