Mr. Popper's Penguins | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Mr. Popper's Penguins

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Mr. Popper's Penguins, Lifeline Theatre.

Meryl Friedman's adaptation of the 1938 Newbery winner Mr. Popper's Penguins succeeds because it respects children's sense of humor: it's never patronizing, never preachy. Lifeline Theatre's current production of the play, revised since its 1991 production, is simply hilarious and delightful. A dreamy housepainter, Mr. Popper, receives a penguin as a surprise gift from his hero, arctic explorer Admiral Drake. After the Popper family acquires another penguin to ease Cook's loneliness, the couple produce six babies, and the Poppers must face a real-life problem: how to support the hungry, mischievous, beloved brood. Their creative solution: turn the penguins into performers.

The "show within a show" plot makes this a perfect piece for musical theater, and Friedman balances narration and naturalistic scenes to keep the play vibrant. Director Amy Fenton's stage pictures honor the play's realistic and theatrical qualities alike, taking us into the quiet intimacy of the Poppers' home in one scene, then using magical effects like glittery fake snow in the next. The cast of five not only play their principal roles outstandingly, they also create a host of funny supporting characters and manipulate the penguin puppets with ease.

Beneath the silly story are a few subtle, encouraging messages: that even an average Joe can fulfill his deepest, most impractical dreams, and that the welfare of loved ones is more important than getting rich quick.

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