Chicago Theatre Review
What It Means to Be Loved
The Velveteen Rabbit – Marriott Theatre
At the beginning of this heartwarming musical, a young father is observed searching through an attic filled with his long-forgotten toys, looking for the perfect gift for his young daughter’s birthday. There, buried beneath the dust covers, Steve discovers a favorite battery-powered toy boat, a much-loved rocking horse and, his most-treasured toy, a Velveteen Rabbit. Fond memories flood Steve’s mind and suddenly we see before us a six-year-old boy and his twelve-year-old brother Ben, once again enjoying their childhood together in the nursery.
James Still (books & lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts (score) developed a musical adaptation of Margery Williams’ children’s classic for Theatreworks USA, back in 1986. It opened in New York and then toured the country. Their tuneful version of Williams’ story makes the tale more contemporary. It still tells about a little boy and his favorite stuffed animal, a rabbit whose fondest wish is to become real.
In this version, directed and choreographed with heart and tenderness by popular Chicago actress/dancer Amanda Tanguay, and musically directed by Ellen K. Morris, the story has been updated and slightly altered. While retaining the same message that a child’s imagination and deep love for his favorite toy can make it seem alive, this adaptation differs in how the Velveteen Rabbit achieves her dream to become real. While there’s no teardrop producing a magical flower and no Nursery Fairy whose kiss transforms the stuffed animal into a real rabbit, the play ends with the same moral about what it means to be loved.
This isn’t your typical theatre for young audiences production. The Marriott’s current offering explores far more serious themes and offers considerably less action and broad comedy. The musical is far more character-driven and, as such, may not hold the attention of some very young theatergoers. However, juvenile audiences, and their adult companions, who appreciate and understand a more thoughtful and reflective story will love this production.
Marriott favorite Dara Cameron leaves her tiara at home this time around, stepping out of her usual princess roles to play the Velveteen Rabbit. She’s sincere, caring and absolutely adorable as the cloth bunny who loves her boy with all her heart. More than anything, she wishes to become real through young Steve’s care and devotion, and, eventually, her patience and love pays off. Devin DeSantis, one of Chicago’s finest musical talents, is terrific as Steve. He effortlessly transitions, before the audience’s eyes, from a young father into a six-year-old boy, playing a realistic child without becoming a cliche. The relationship between Cameron and DeSantis is, like their chemistry, honest, realistic and affecting.
As the other toys, Mark David Kaplan, one of Chicago’s most popular and accomplished character actors, is paternal and protective as the Rocking Horse. As the oldest toy in the attic, Kaplan is a bit worn from being well-loved over the years. His wisdom is accumulated from decades of experience, which he happily shares with the other toys. Sharriese Hamilton is the know-it-all new kid on the block, a shiny red, battery-operated boat that lights up and moves on its own. Ms. Hamilton brings her trademark spice and sassiness to the role, as she has in so many other Chicago productions. She also has the added responsibility of welcoming the audience and warning them about cell phone usage, recording and taking pictures, and she does it all with humor and attitude.
Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, a bubbly, gifted actor/singer, remembered for his scene-stealing performance in Marriott’s recent production of “Sister Act,” is Ben, Steve’s older brother. He plays the role of this tormenting tease, a juvenile surrogate authority figure for six-year-old Steve, with compassion and care. And, rounding out the cast, talented dancer/singer Zoe Nadal effectively plays both the Wild Rabbit and a hospital doctor with zip and zeal.
Theresa Ham’s brilliant costumes, especially for the three toys, are creative. They imitate the texture, color and design of the actual playthings, which are also seen on stage. Sharriese Hamilton’s bright red, nautical-inspired vinyl dress, with its metallic epaulets and glowing lights, is the designer’s masterpiece. Mark Kaplan’s western look, complete with cowboy boots and mop-headed mane, mirrors the actual rocking horse he plays. Dara Cameron’s puff-sleeved yellow and brown pinafore, with her hair in loose braids that mimic the Velveteen Rabbit’s lop-ears, is perfection. And Devin DeSantis easily transforms from a concerned father into a bespectacled little boy, thanks to Ms. Ham’s expertise.
At only an hour in length, including a brief, informative talkback with the cast, this sweet children’s musical is a tad more serious than most shows aimed at juvenile audiences. However, it’s an entertaining and heartwarming play that will charm young and old alike. Featuring topnotch talent, inventive costumes and an excellent live band, this wonderful production, directed and choreographed by Amanda Tanguay, is a cool summer treat for audiences of all ages.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 16-August 14 by The Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com