There are many ways that a live-action production of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh could have gone awry. Thankfully, the newly opened Off-Broadway musical adaptation of Pooh has eschewed a theme park approach and focused instead on the story’s folksy charm.
Anyone who grew up reading the A.A. Milne books or watching the Sherman Brothers-scored movies knows that there is not much of a plot to Pooh. The original stories follow a silly stuffed bear who comes to life and goes on adventures while waiting for his human friend, Christopher Robin, to return from school. Usually those exploits involve securing honey, which Pooh loves as much as a certain cartoon mouse does cheese.
Rather than expand that concept into an overly long extravaganza that comments on the avaricious nature of men, this Rockefeller Production-designed show respects its source material and allows the action to unfold almost exactly as it does on the page.
For audiences, that means a manageable 65-minute-long romp with Pooh and his anthropomorphized friends as they enjoy what makes each of the four seasons enjoyable: the blusteriness of autumn and rescuing Piglet from a runaway kite; befriending a snow-lady in a winter wonderland; ruining Rabbit’s vegetable garden while practicing bouncing with Tigger and Kanga; and of course, rescuing Pooh from a honey tree. Though Christopher Robin makes a brief appearance at the top of the show and conclusion, as in Toy Story, here the toys are the thing.
Upon entering the newly renamed Hundred Acre Wood Theatre at Theatre Row, audiences are met with a gorgeous set which David Goldstein has designed to evoke the illustrative magic of Milne’s original artwork. The overall effect is that one actually feels as if they are standing within the world of Pooh’s picture books.
Soon, Jake Bazel saunters onstage with a life-size puppet of our leading character attached to his front. Bazel plays Pooh with a bemused grin while leaning into his clueless though amiably selfish ways. He manages this feat without reducing Pooh to a narcissistic rapscallion, though at times ― like Kristy Moon's Piglet and Roo and Kristina Dizon's Kanga ― he adds on twee affectations that appear to comment on the potentially saccharine nature of the material, rather than simply allowing the action to unfurl. Perhaps the three gifted performers were simply pushing childlike ardor harder than was necessary for the 10 a.m. performance I attended.
What rights the sentimental balance of the show is Emmanuel Elpenord’s show-stealing comedy as a knowingly ho-hum Eeyore, smart-alecky Owl, and exasperated Rabbit. Elpenord’s characterizations are wry without ever being arch, and wink just enough at the adults in the audience to invite them into the jokes as well. He is joined by Chris Palmieri’s artfully scatterbrained Tigger who all but bounces away with every scene he appears in.
Elpenord and Palmieri also show the greatest level of detailed puppetry and physical theatre; they enter and exit each scene with the same commitment to character whether they are embodying butterflies, snowflakes, or a named character. Additionally, their foot and hand work are so precise that one starts to believe that Matthew Lish’s wonderfully crafted puppets have actually come to life.
Pooh is decidedly gentle entertainment. Much like Rockefeller's other equally loving production, The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show, this show feels as if it has been specifically designed so that audiences of all stimulation levels can comfortably attend. Indeed, at the performance I attended, there were adults with advanced autism waving their hands with glee as well as rambunctious toddlers and tykes, some of whom were undoubtedly enjoying their first live-theatre experience.
I am unashamed to admit that observing them revel in the beauty of this production, content in the knowledge that they were safe to do so, reduced me to tears.
It was only a matter of time before Disney gave Pooh the same theatrical translation as its other intellectual properties; that’s why I’m thrilled that the behemoth trusted this production team to do so with gentle care rather than exaggerated flash. Though there is much talk about access to theatre around racial lines, it is rare to see that same consideration given to those with sensory limitations. Happily, with Winnie the Pooh, Disney has finally committed itself to theatre for all; whether they are children, people living with stimulation limitations, or individuals simply desiring a joyful time.
Photo credit: Emmanuel Elpenord as Eeyore, Chris Palmieri as Tigger, Jake Bazel as Pooh, and Kirsty Moon as Piglet in Winnie the Pooh. (Photo by Evan Zimmerman)