The littlest audience members were happily dancing, clapping, shouting, bouncing and giggling their way through the antics of the colorful animal characters for the opening matinee of "Winnie the Pooh," presented by the Duluth Playhouse's Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA).
By contrast, 2-year-old Arthur, sitting next to me on his grandmother's lap, was perfectly still, spell-bound and mesmerized, never making a peep throughout the entire show.
The cast members playing eight animal characters (and one human boy) are uniformly strong in bringing author A.A. Milne's cast of forest friends to life. Audience favorites are, of course, Pooh (Mike Pederson), Piglet (Amber Burns) and Eeyore (Jacob Lindig).
No one does cute, cuddly and charming playing anthropomorphic characters quite like Pederson. Looking every inch the bright yellow iconic bear with the red midriff t-shirt, his facial expressions, intentionally low-key delivery and instant audience connection are on point.
Portraying his issues with the persistent "rumbly in his tumbly," Pederson shows both Pooh's ever present state of starvation and his urgent quest to find his lost friend Piglet.
The contrast of "pint-sized" Burns playing the "pretty in pink" Piglet, the frightened and dependent best little buddy to Pooh, is adorable. Her sweet dependence on Pooh and his undying devotion to her are the marshmallow heart of the show.
Audience member Cate declared at the end of the performance, "I like Piglet the best because she is so cute!"
As the ever-depressed, pessimistic and melancholic Eeyore, Lindig is hilarious He even stayed in character for the reception line after the show by responding to congratulations with Eeyore's under-stated catch-phrase, "Thanks for noticing."
Tigger (Ben Peter) is also strong as the show's narrator who establishes the ground rules at the beginning of the show and sets up the encouragement for audience participation throughout. Peter is appropriately "bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy and fun."
Doting mother Kanga (Dani Hollar) and her candy-loving off-spring who has fled the "pouch" (Cheryl Skafte) have some funny moments as well.
Pamela Johnsrud's costumes are a delight. While not being too derivative of film adaptations, her bright costumes and cute headpieces make the characters instantly recognizable.
While the pacing drags just a bit in the middle of the show, Director Lucy Habdas mostly keeps her animal kingdom on the run to hold the children's interest.
Habdas's set design is simple but functional. Amber Burns also did some fun projections on the upstage scrim of some of Pooh's adventures that would have been tough to stage.
Whether for those who grew up with these characters from the books, know and love them from the film adaptations or are meeting them for the first time, this play version connects on many levels.
As little Arthur continued to stare up at the bare stage even after the lights came up, I had the feeling "Winnie the Pooh" will not be his last show - I like to think the Playhouse has created a theater fan for life and that is everything.
If you go
What: "Winnie the Pooh," based on the book by A.A.Milne, adapted for the stage by Kristin Sergei
When: 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays May 12-26.
Where: The Depot Theatre stage, 506 W. Michigan St.
How much: $17 for standard and $15 for youth