Chicago Theatre Review
A Mouse for All Seasons
Frederick – Chicago Childrens Theatre
The prolific artist and children’s author/illustrator Leo Lionni was a four-time Caldecott Award winner for, among others, his beautiful picture book, Frederick. His 1968 story is among the Top 100 Books for Children, based upon a 2007 poll conducted by the National Education Association. In the hands of Jeff Award honored director Stuart Carden, this world premier captures all the warmth, beauty and imagination of Lionni’s magical tale of an artist.
Adapted for the stage by Suzanne Miller (whose works for young audiences includes a musical version of the super cool picture book series, Pete the Cat), her play with music features 10 exuberant, original tunes composed by children’s television songwriters (“Sesame Street,” “Dora the Explorer”), Paul Jacobs and Sarah Durkee. Brought to life upon John Musial’s imaginative stage setting, inspired by the wonderful collage illustrations created by Lionni for his picture books, Frederick’s world is made up of over-sized rocks, flowers, seeds and snowflakes, all rendered in exquisite earth tones. Rachel Anne Healy’s whimsical costumes continue the fantasy featuring oversize safety pins and buttons and, like Musial’s set and the story itself, evolve along with the seasons.
Designed for children ages 3 and up, this play is mostly about its characters. Under Stuart Carden’s fine, sensitive direction, the community of five field mice magically spring to life. Frederick is a young mouse whose passion for art and poetry supersedes his community’s need to stockpile enough food necessary to survive the coming winter. His friends, including the bright, always optimistic Sunny, hard-working inventor Ernest and Frederick’s most devoted fan, Baby, all appreciate and accept their friend’s lyrical musings and passion for nature‘s beauty as part of his lovable character. However Nellie, the most practical-minded of this mouse hamlet, finds Frederick’s romantic view of the world useless. When she unintentionally hurts Frederick’s feelings by calling him “selfish” for not helping to pull his weight, the mouse heads off into the snow to hunt for seeds and berries. When he doesn’t return to the burrow, the mice all begin to worry and miss what Frederick contributed to their world. They form a search party to search for and rescue their little friend. Needless to say, all ends happily and Spring returns to signal another wonderful year.
Lionni’s book and Miller’s dramatic adaptation both remind children about the strength of community and family, the inspirational power of friendship and the need to accept everyone for who they are. It also emphasizes the importance of art in our world. Songs like “We Got Work to Do,” “Four Little Field Mice” and the rousing “There’s No Runnin‘ Out of Joy” do much to enhance this production, offering audiences the chance to sing or clap along.
Musician Nicholas Davio, along and his five cast members, sing, provide the musical accompaniment and are all delightful and engaging. Richard Juarez is sweet and endearing in the title role. His lovely, “The Things I Used to Think” is especially touching while the actor makes Frederick a truly relatable individual for young audiences. Sophie Grimm’s Nellie is so down-to-earth and sensible that she sometimes forgets the fun that life offers. Finally realizing the dilemma her thoughtless comment’s created, Nellie expresses her frustration in “No One Feels Like Chatting.” Christine Bunuan, direct from her hilarious portrayal of Christmas Eve in “Avenue Q,” brings a humorous, wide-eyed innocence and sincerity to Baby, while Emily Casey provides musical talent and versatility to the stalwart, always buoyant Sunny. Rounding out this ensemble, Shawn Pfautsch brings considerable theatrical expertise and musicality to his amusing portrayal of the nerdy, adolescent Ernest.
Chicago Children’s Theatre, in yet another world premier for young audiences, offers a company of lovable characters, created by a half-dozen gifted actor/musicians who understand how to tell a simple, beautiful story for all ages. In this polished production, there’s something for everyone. And, of course, the maxim that all work and no play creates a dull existence is elevated by Leo Lionni’s story that illustrates how art and the need to create is just as important as life’s other basic needs. In a world where sports and technology often reins supreme, this idea is one that children need to constantly hear. In “Frederick,” that message is loud, clear and colorfully brought to life.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 17-November 16 by Chicago Children’s Theatre at the Ruth Page Theatre, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 872-222-9555 or by going to www.chicagochildrenstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.