Now here is a question I never thought I would ask: how is “Winnie the Pooh” similar to “The Great Gatsby”?
Well, they are both popular classics and that makes them very tempting for adaptation. However, such adaptations often fail, because what makes “Gatsby” so successful is the style of Fitzgerald’s writing, and that does not translate well from the written page to stage or screen, and much can be said of Milne’s childhood masterpiece.
Starting the new year at Adventure Theater MTC is a new version of “Winnie the Pooh,” and while more successful than many other such adaptations (including a few at Adventure Theater in earlier years) it still fails to capture the magic of A. A. Milne’s deceptively simple masterpiece. After all, someone once wrote a book called “The Tao of Pooh” and it was not a parody.
Still, it will please many young audience members. The songs are generally snappy and the set design by Luciana Stecconi is a lovely presentation of the 100 acre woods. This adaptation by le Clanche du Rand gets off to a good start, sags in the middle, but comes to a strong finish.
One of the things all readers of “Pooh” know is that the stories are short and simple – perfect for first time reading material or bedtime stories, but not necessarily good for stage adaptation. In du Rand’s adaptation, several stories are combined to form one large tale. It should be noted these are the earlier tales in the Pooh series and therefore no Tigger bounds onstage during the show. Tigger fans, and I know there are quite a few of them out there, are hereby warned.
So we quickly get introduced to the main residents of the 100 acre woods and get the major situations established. Rabbit is concerned about a new visitor to the woods named Kanga, and her little child Roo, and the fact she has (horrors) a bathtub. There may be another new creature in the woods as certain tracks hint that the dreaded and mysterious “Hefflalump” has returned. And then there is Eeyore’s birthday, which everyone forgot plus the donkey somehow lost his tail.
Long time Milne fans will recognize these stories and probably remember how most of these end. It makes for a whirlwind beginning, but none of these stories are very complex or elaborate. So there is a section in the middle of the play where characters seem to be running around complaining about all the plans and preparations they have to do today instead of doing anything. It all comes to an eventful conclusion as these various plot strands resolve themselves with tidy little morals, but even just an hour long, the play feels padded and the myriad of subplots never fuse into a cohesive whole.
For many young audience members, that may be no big deal. Director Jerry Whiddon gives the show plenty of subtle attention and brings out many interesting details. The cast gives it their best shot, with several actors playing multiple roles and quickly changing costumes between scenes. Todd Scofield makes Pooh a loveable if easily distracted character, while Joshua Morgan makes Rabbit a charming schemer. Genevieve James gives us a woe-be-gone Piglet who suffers the most whenever the plans of these other characters go awry, and those plots often do.
Finally, James Gardiner does a great job as Eeyore, and I must admit to being an Eeyore fan. New age nihilism meets old world charm – you got to go with the donkey. Gardiner manages to make Eeyore more than a one note character and he is also good as the overly maternal Kanga.
I wish the play did more with Morgan’s Owl and with Holden Brettell as a very good Christopher Robin, but he feels underused by the script. The issue of course is that Brettell’s Christopher Robin has to be kept off stage because the human boy is the one who helps straighten out all the problems.
Young audience members probably want nothing more than to see their storybook characters come to life, and that makes this production worth attending. Still, the magic of Milne’s unique creation comes to life on the written page far better than it ever did on the stage or movie screen.
“Winnie the Pooh” continues at Adventure Theater MTC at Glen Echo Park through February 24. For more information go online to http://www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org/index.html or call (301) 634-2270.
By David Cannon
Mocovox Entertainment Critic