The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle was the first book I ever read on my own, so it’s always held a special place in my heart. I’m not the only one, though; Carle’s classic picture books have touched generations of readers with their warm, gentle storytelling and unique art style. So it’s no wonder that Jonathan Rockefeller created The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show, a staged adaptation of the book, currently in production at Chicago Children’s Theatre, directed by Jerrell L. Henderson.
For all that nostalgia drew me into the theatre, I was skeptical as to how a single picture book, which takes no more than a few minutes to read aloud, could possibly be stretched into a fifty-minute production. What could anyone possibly add to the story?
The answer is, nothing. The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show, while it does contain the title story, actually encompasses four Eric Carle books: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?; 10 Little Rubber Ducks; The Very Lonely Firefly; and, of course, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The actors speak only the text found in the original books, so the majority of the storytelling is done with visuals.
And oh, what visuals they are! Seventy-five gorgeous puppets, carefully rendered to match Carle’s distinct and delightful illustration style, bring beloved characters to vivid and vivacious life with the help of actor/puppeteers Lara Carling, Micah Figueroa and Leslie Ann Sheppard. Scenic design by Will Bishop creates the look of blank scraps of paper, echoed in the costumes designed by Caitlin McLeod, which makes the bright, colorful puppets stand out even more against their neutral backdrop. Lighting design by Jason Lynch brings literal color to the story, with bright polka-dots serving as transition lighting and lights matching the colors of each animal in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? And with so little dialogue, sound design by Zack Shirtum becomes essential to filling the silence and fits the light, calm tone of the production.
Moments of audience participation help the little ones stay involved in the action. Kids in the audience are invited to shout out the colors and animals in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and to repeat the phrase “but he was still hungry!” along with the actors during The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The pace of the show is leisurely, allowing the audience time to fully appreciate the beauty of each puppet, my favorite of which is the fireflies, who blink and glow just like real ones (although, really, all of the puppets are charming). Although the show is in no hurry, it doesn’t lose the element of surprise; characters popping out from doors in the set are a source of great delight for the young audience, and I myself couldn’t help but chuckle at the arrival of the chubby caterpillar puppet toward the end of the show.
There’s something to be said, too, for a theatre that’s specifically designed for producing work for children. The building has a separate “stroller entrance,” and the lobby both before and after the show is rife with fun, kid-friendly activities like coloring and card games. Bench seating in the theatre allows for little ones to move in and out of their grownup’s laps and wriggle around as needed without causing a distraction. After the show, audience members have the opportunity to meet and take pictures with the actors and puppets. Everything from the logistics of audience arrival to the content of the show itself is perfectly suited to young audiences, with plenty for adults to love as well. If you have a little one in your life, definitely take them to Chicago Children’s Theatre to see this show.
Location: Chicago Children’s Theatre, The Station, 100 S. Racine Ave. in Chicago’s West Loop
Dates: September 24-October 27, 2019
Regular performances: Saturday and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Exception: No 10:30 a.m. show Saturday, October 12.
Tickets: $27-$39. Visit the Chicago Children’s Theatre website or call CCT Guest Services, (312) 374-8835.
All photos by Ari Craven.