Review by Kelly Romack MacBlane; photo by Suzanne Plunkett.
As the mother of three boys, ages 4, 7 and 9, I have been exposed to a wide variety of children’s entertainment. Over the years, I have learned to appreciate the shows, movies, and performances that are able to both capture my children’s attention while also keeping me at least mildly engaged. Lifeline Theatre’s KidSeries production of Bunnicula went above and beyond.
Bunnicula is a new musical adaptation of the 1979 children’s novel by the same name written by Deborah and James Howe. James Sie, who is credited with the adaptation and lyrics, and Doug Wood, who created the music, did an excellent job of capturing the suspenseful yet kid-friendly spirit of the book. Bunnicula follows the story of the Monroe family who finds a bunny at a movie theater during a screening of Dracula. Not long after they bring the bunny home, strange things begin to happen- strangest of all being that the vegetables in the house are all turning white! The well-read cat in the family, Chester, suspects something is not quite right with their new housemate. Chester, along with the family dog, Harold, sets out to get to the bottom of the vegetable mystery and figure out who Bunnicula, the aptly named rabbit, really is.
The show seemed fitting for a crisp fall day, not long before Halloween. I took my 9-year-old son as my date in order to get a true perspective on how well the piece read with its targeted audience. By the end of the 45-minute production, we both were thoroughly entertained, both of us laughing out loud through most of the performance. The laughter began with the entrance of Harold, the family dog played by Nick Druzbanski. Like all of the characters in the show, Harold was outfitted in what I found to be quite tacky and humorous 1970’s fashion, with a fringe leather vest giving the idea of fur topped off by a sweatband with floppy ears. I couldn’t help but giggle. Harold narrates the show with the help of the highly intelligent cat Chester, played by Carisa Gonzalez, whose pointy ears and kitschy striped shirt along with her feline movements made her believably cat-like. The scenes with the two animals are the best- their banter and sarcastic wit keeping the adults in the audience laughing. However, judging by the squirmy nature of the younger boy sitting next to me, it may have been a little hard for him to follow at times. Luckily, the physical humor in the show, along with the anticipation of where Bunnicula, played by a very believable puppet, might appear or disappear, was able to draw the young audience members' attention back in. In the end, my son and I decided the best age range for the show would be 5-9.
There were many other components of the show my son and I enjoyed. He loved the puppet bunny and how different actors would manipulate Bunnicula depending on the scene. He also spent much of the show trying to figure out how Bunnicula “got out of his cage,” in the scenes where Chester and Harold found the cage empty. We both enjoyed the set that incorporated the use of shadows behind the onstage scenes to create different motifs. For instance, during one song, a chorus of shadow alley cats sang along with the actors onstage. This was one of our favorite moments. As for the music, I appreciated the fact that is was completely acapella. Using onstage and offstage voices, I enjoyed the way the five actors of the show could create such a spooky atmosphere with their singing.
As my son and I broke down the show over a coffee and hot chocolate later in the day, he decided it deserved a green light. He only had two complaints. One, he felt the acting was...cheesy? Over the top? He struggled to describe it. I, on the other hand, thought Anthony Kayer’s direction was perfect for this show. We agreed to disagree. However, we both were wondering what happened to the second brother in the show. In the opening scene, there are two brothers that come home with the family and the new bunny. However, one of the brothers, Toby, is never seen in the show again...and mysteriously looks a lot like Chester. I wondered why even have Toby appear in the first place. My son questioned what happened to him and why he never came back. However, overall, we both agreed we would recommend this fun show to our friends.
If you do have the opportunity to see Bunnicula at the Lifeline Theater, I’d also recommend taking advantage of the Stories Come Alive session that runs at noon between the 11 am and 1 pm shows on Saturdays and Sundays. This is a one hour class of theater games for kids. The cost is $5 per child. The games are all related to the show and our instructor, Nate, did a great job of working to reach the diverse age group of kids in our class. (My son was the oldest. He and I decided this program is best suited for kids ages 4-8). There were 9 kids in our session, along with myself. None of the other parents attended; however, when I asked Nate if I could go, he said of course as long as I participated. Being a lover of theater games, this wasn’t a problem! Nate kept the class moving with about five games over the 55-minute session. For the most part, the children were all engaged and there was a lot of laughter. I was impressed with Nate’s ability to keep the kids focused and on track. I’m hoping to be able to bring my other sons back for a class in the future.
Overall, it was a wonderful afternoon. Bunnicula and Stories Come Alive at the Lifeline Theater are a great way to help your young ones get pulled in to the amazing world of theater.
Bunnicula is now playing at the Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Avenue, Chicago, through November 25. Performance times vary; check the website at Lifeline Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.