What is your “heart dog?” How do you know it, find it—and deal with the disappointment of maybe not being able to have it? Or even . . . losing it?
Heavy questions for the school-age (and even preschool) set, they are also questions that parents will deal with as their children begin to navigate the complexities of desire and disappointment, and look to them for understanding, and answers.
Mo Willems, the Kennedy Center’s very first Education Artist in Residence, who has reached into his own heart (and no doubt experience) to create the indefatigable feathered one, is the author of the beloved, award-winning book (and subsequent sequels) about a determined bird with outsize ambition that inspired the musical, playing in the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater.
As the audience settled into their seats, throughout the theater little fingers could be seen carefully tearing out the colorful finger puppets from the large folding brochure each had been given with their program, patiently coached by the grownup or older sibling they’d brought with them. And as they waited for the show to begin—just, I suspect, as Willems envisioned—they created stories on the fly.
The two lead roles are played by Christopher Michael Richardson, as The Pigeon, and Felicia Curry, as The Bus Driver.
Richardson has not only the biggest, but the most challenging role: Unlike the other characters, who are human, as The Pigeon, Richardson, in gray T-shirt and cargo pants (Costume Designer: Jeannette Christensen), must hold and manipulate a large hand puppet (the masterful Puppet Fabricator is Carole D’Agostino), creating convincing dramatic action for its movements, which are both facilitated and complicated by wires, while singing songs expressing a range of emotions.
Richardson carries it off with aplomb, conveying The Pigeon’s sometimes quicksilver-shifting moods with vocal and theatrical skill, to the extent that the initial uncertainty that having a visible puppeteer would make the character seem less believable soon disappeared, as Richardson convincingly became both The Pigeon (with kudos to Puppet Director Scottie Rowell), and his friend.
As The Bus Driver, Felicia Curry, spit-sharp in a crisp white uniform with turquoise accents, is committed to her passengers and takes pride in her work, moving purposefully as she deals with their needs and quirks while never losing sight of the schedule she has an almost military cadet-like duty to keep. Curry’s strong, sure voice complements Richardson’s ringing tones, which are especially searing when The Pigeon—who has decided that he must do something he has been told repeatedly he may not do: drive the bus—in an emotional outburst familiar to parents (and kids) everywhere, wails: “I never get to do anything!”
Things will begin to seem even more dire for the poor Pigeon, and in one brief, startling scene, the intuitiveness and dramatic skills of Richardson, in Director Jerry Whiddon’s deftly conceived confessional moment, supported by the painfully acute thrust of Lighting Director Sarah Tundermann’s plunge into sudden, nearly complete darkness, imbue the scene with an almost religious sensibility.
That, however, is a rare moment. Most of the musical is delightfully, rip-roaringly, giggle-inducingly kid-friendly. As the Hot Dog Man, Evan Casey, dapper in a bright red-and-white suit, is chary of sharing his wares with The Pigeon, who may want them mostly because he’s told he can’t have them. Casey capably turns from 1920s-era East Side street hawker to officious busy-busy-busy man as the Business Man, seemingly powered by legs that go in all directions at once and never quit. And as the well-meaning but aggravatingly insistent Little Old Lady, who keeps throwing birdseed everywhere, Tracy Lynn Olivera offers a mild touch of Monty Python lunacy combined with a sort of “Kind Hearts and Coronets” whimsy.
One of the most revved-up characters is the one who can’t get it in gear: the Bus Engine, played by Erika Rose, whose increasingly desperate (and impressively loud) Vroom, vroom, VROOM attempts to save the Bus Driver and her passengers from being (gasp!) late are so improvisationally rich, she had the audience laughing as if on cue each time she began a reprise.
Rose also played one of my favorite characters: the Bus Driver’s mother, whose sharp tongue and side-splitting mien was one of the most rewarding uses of the windows, which functioned much like those of the Boomer-era “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In.” She had me nearly, well (to put in a plug for the present day), ROFL.
Now that we in DC have said our sad bye-byes to Bei Bei, the panda who recently left the National Zoo, it was only a matter of time for another pettable, huggable, adorable, four-legged furball to find a place in our hearts. I nominate Puppy, a huge, happily panting, leaping, skittering, epitome-of-puppydom puppet whose eyes are filled with innocence and eager affection. An ecstatic tail-wag to Carole D’Agostino (and whoever’s in that costume).
Scenic Designer Daniel Conway’s set is light, bright, and welcoming. And Music Director William Yanesh and Sound Designer Justin Schmitz bring a cogently modulated soundscape to the show.
Deborah Wicks La Puma’s songs are bouncy and rhythmic, with catchy lyrics that will also catch unsuspecting grownups unawares. Rapid-blink references riffing on current events or days gone by may awaken childhood memories of their own. Many adults will come mainly for their kids (here’s the “officially official online grownup guide”), but leave with a renewed appreciation for what they have need to give them—and what they can learn from them in return.
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (The Musical!) plays through January 5, 2020, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Family Theater, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or go online.
Teenager/Ensemble, Hasani Allen; Choreographer, Jessica Hartman; Dramaturg, Megan Alrutz; Stage Manager, Julia Singer