Theater Review: WINNIE THE POOH: THE NEW MUSICAL STAGE ADAPTION (Mercury Theater Chicago)

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by Stephen Best on April 16, 2022

in Theater-Chicago


Just in time to join in the celebration of the 95th anniversary of the beloved children’s character, the Mercury Theater is making a bold and commemorative move on its mainstage. Never before have they put a children’s show in their regular rotation. After wonderfully received post-pandemic, yet more traditional productions, including Sister Act and Women of Soul, is their gamble worth it? Of course! Disney’s Winnie the PoohThe New Stage Adaptation is an adorable, quick-paced and inspired production. Artistic Director Christopher Chase Carter is making daring moves on behalf of the reopened Mercury, pouncing on this new show that just wrapped its world premiere in New York (the show opens again Off-Broadway June 18). Now booked for a limited 13-week run, Pooh and company are brought to three dimensional life eight times a week. Following the format of Timon and Pumbaa from Disney’s The Lion King and Olaf from Frozen the Musicalthe actors playing the characters are purposely not hidden from view. Their faces and performances as just as important as their endearing puppetry. Fans of all ages will marvel at the results.

Set in the classic Hundred Acre Woods, a secret and hidden forest clearing, young Christopher Robin lets his imagination come to life when he plays with his famous fictional teddy bear and his world of wonderful friends. Originally created by English author and World War l veteran, Alan Alexander Milne, Pooh’s popularity stems from the characters’ relatability and innocence. With that in mind, the live action show is both created and directed by Jonathan Rockefeller and produced in association with Disney Theatrical Group. Disney’s involvement upped the show’s game exponentially. The puppets are credited to builder Matthew Lish and his team of artists, designers, patternmakers, welders and fabricators at Rockefeller Productions. If you elect to invest in the VIP Package at the Mercury, you are invited to take photos after the show with the characters on stage. Just be forewarned, no touching of the life-sized puppets. Not that I made that mistake.

As for the performers, Jake Bazel completely embodies the essence of Winnie the Pooh. I flashed back to childhood immediately upon his first utterance of Pooh’s signature “Oh Bother.” Mimicking Sterling Holloway, the original voice actor from the 1960s but making the character solidly his own. Scene stealer Emmanuel Elpenord was tasked with bringing a trio of characters to life; sad sack donkey, Eeyore, knowledgeable Owl and persnickety Rabbit. He nailed all three, Eeyore clearly proving to be the audience favorite. Tina-Kim Nguyen brought Pooh’s pint-sized best friend Piglet to life. The bombastic Tigger given all the energy and, well, bounce, from Sebastiano Ricci. William Daily is the only performer to not have a puppet strapped to his person, portraying the young Christopher Robin.

Credited as a musical, songs performed include all of the fan favorites; “Winnie the Pooh”, “The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers”, “Sing-Ho (For the Life of a Bear)” and “Whoop-De-Dooper Bounce”. These little ditties hand selected from several previously produced Pooh programming’s;  and  featurettes Winnie the Pooh & the Honey Tree (1966) and Winnie the Pooh & the Blustery Day (1968), The Tigger Movie (2000), and Piglet’s Big Movie (2003). Believe it or not, previous Pooh projects have collectively earned an Oscar, Grammy and Daytime Emmy awards, so why not develop a stage show with aspirations to complete the EGOT? I might be jumping the gun here, but while waiting for that illusive Tony trophy, I was surprised to discover back on April 11, 2006, Winnie the Pooh also received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Pooh is just the fourth Disney character ever to receive this recognition, following in the illustrious footsteps, or pawprints, of Mickey Mouse, Snow White and Donald Duck. Not too shabby for a honey-nibbling Ursidae.

The story is made up of vignettes from a few very well-known Winnie the Pooh animated adventures by Disney, all culled from the pages of multiple storybooks. The most delightful and giggle inducing visual is Pooh’s head stuck in a tree, aimlessly kicking his hind legs in the air while his friends concoct a scheme for his eventual rescue. Set over a single calendar year, we collectively get to experience all four seasons, with “leaves” blowing and “snowflakes” falling over the first few rows of the audience in attendance. Zach Pizza’s lighting and Jack Golden’s scenic design help craft the passage of time and seasons with heartwarming results. Golden’s take on Rabbit’s garden deserves a closeup, pre-show look. Anyone with even the slightest of green thumbs will get a chuckle out of the details.

A source of consternation and immediate post-show debate was Lindsay McWilliams’ costuming. Dressed in denim and neutral tones, the actors fit right into the proceedings effortlessly, not pulling focus from their puppet partners. I personally appreciated we could see the actors’ faces during their performance. Others I was chatting with thought they should all be adorned in black from head to toe, like a stage hand. That level of stark black wouldn’t fit in this world, surely standing out against the pale pastel landscape that Christopher Robin’s imagination created. Seems everyone’s a critic nowadays, but this review space is solidly mine.

This is a delightful romp. Not too heavy (or more importantly, long) for the kiddos to sit through and not too slow for the adults who accompany them. Whimsical, nostalgic and oh-so-charming, this winning trip to the Hundred Acre Woods, by way of the Mercury Theater, will delight. Just make sure to bring your credit card. Being a Disney production, the lobby is full of must-have, take-home, souvenir swag.

photos courtesy of Rockefeller Productions

Winnie the Pooh – The New Musical Stage Adaptation
Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport
Thurs at 7pm; Fri at 10am and 7pm; Sat at 10am, 2pm and 7pm; Sun at 11am and 3pm
ends on June 12, 2022
for tickets, call 773.325.1700 or visit Mercury Theater

returns Off-Broadway June 18 thru July 31, 2022
Hundred Acre Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
for tickets, visit winniethepoohshow

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Daniella May 15, 2022 at 4:32 pm

Great show!


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