Northwest Children’s Theatre’s production of Elephant & Piggie’s We are in a Play! is as silly as you might expect. It is, after all, based on the popular Elephant and Piggie children’s books by Mo Willems, in particular, “We are in a Book!”
The concept of the book is that the elephant and the piggie realize they are in a book and they get very excited that they can make the reader say whatever they want. This delights kids, because there is magic in the book characters controlling Mom or Dad.
There is magic on stage, too, in this musical, with script and lyrics by Willems himself and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. There are clever costumes designed by Mary Eggers, which turn humans into an elephant and a pig (plus a dog, a penguin, and three squirrels) while allowing us to still see the humans inside them. The simple set designed by John Ellingson at first looks like little more than a shiny game-show backdrop, but proves to be much more useful than that.
This sixty-minute musical is packed full of songs. There are ten musical numbers across a variety of genres – from operatic ballad to love songs to classics to even one with a kazoo – give this production for the very youngest audiences the credibility of a full-blown musical. And Willems’ script, of course, is chock-full of funny one-liners for the kids, with a little added for the grownups (after all, moms and dads have to attend the play with their little ones, so they might as well enjoy it). So we get: “Elephants cannot dance. … Animal Planet even made a documentary about it.”
And NWCT has cast six terrific actors to play the animals in this imaginary land, particularly Joellen Sweeney as a perfectly cheerful and naïve Piggie and John Ellingson as the doofy and worrying Elephant, Gerald. Both stars sing, dance, and provide plenty of pratfalls and belly-laughs.
As any parent who has read Willems’ books (repeatedly) could tell you, the children will enjoy this whole play, but they will shriek with delight during the title song, “We Are in a Play.” This is where it gets interactive, and Gerald and Piggie make the audience (even the grownups) do silly things – and kids love nothing more than someone else making their parents be silly.
After this lively number, the theater never gets back to that level of joy – although the NWCT cast and crew give it their all. Though sixty minutes is a short play by adult standards, children were getting restless by the end. They wouldn’t have noticed if the play ended after “We are in a Play,” and adults in the audience would have been grateful. But, ask any child exiting a production of this play, and you will be met with resounding love for the characters, the songs, and the story. So who is an adult to judge if it goes on a little long?
Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play! continues through Oct. 21 at Northwest Children’s Theatre. 1819 NW Everett St.