The Young People’s Theatre of Chicago makes its debut with Knuffle Bunny, a stage adaptation by Mo Willems of his beloved picture book. This vivacious musical follows the young Trixie and her Dad as they venture to the laundromat—and accidentally leave favorite stuffed animal Knuffle Bunny behind. Energetic, colorful, and hilarious, this short and sweet show will charm both young audiences and adult caregivers.
Toddler Trixie is a handful; that’s why her Mom is less than confident about handing over laundry and childcare duties to Dad for the day. Dad, however, is certain he’s more than up to the task of watching his little one while washing the family’s clothes. While Dad’s ineptness provides lots of laughs, it’s unfortunate that his characterization plays into the stereotype of fathers as helpless buffoons who ought to take on less household responsibility because of their innate incompetence. Ultimately the gender politics here leave something to be desired. Still, there’s lots to enjoy in this simple story, which hinges on the importance of a favorite stuffed toy. The drama over the loss of Knuffle Bunny is heightened to an over-the-top level that’s fitting for the emotional intensity of a toddler, so while the story remains lighthearted, the tension is real. The core problem, ultimately, is not the loss of the bunny but the struggle of Trixie and her dad to communicate, a struggle that anyone with a parent can relate to.
Trixie speaks in a unique babble that is tolerable in small doses. Actor Aissa Guerra handles the challenge of nonsense dialogue well, ensuring that every line has appropriate subtext and it’s clear that Trixie’s words have a specific meaning to her, even if no one else can understand her. Even so, an entire ballad sung in gibberish borders on irritating—perhaps it could have been a verse of a song instead. Much more delightful are the show’s puppets, designed by Kat Pleviak. My personal favorite is the oversized Knuffle Bunny puppet; the ballroom dance sequence between the giant puppet and Trixie is a hilarious, joyful section of the play. Cameos by a puppet version of Willems’ beloved pigeon character are another element that’s sure to please child audiences.
The design of this show is a delight. A beautiful rendition of the Chicago skyline serves as a backdrop to the action, and I loved the addition of the six-pointed stars from the city’s flag. The entire set, designed by Lauren M. Nichols, is rendered in bright, eye-catching colors reminiscent of the world of children’s picture books, and it’s a pleasure to look at. Giant prop versions of clothing featured in the show’s climax are sure to please as well—the oversize versions of underwear are absolutely giggle-worthy. The show’s ensemble, consisting of Matthew O’Neal Lolar, Haley Gustafson, and Juanita Andersen, is energetic and engaging. Finally, Sam Shankman makes a hilarious and heartfelt Dad and Grace Bobber is a compelling, sympathetic Mom.
Knuffle Bunny is a simple story that packs a big punch. If you have a little one in your life, be sure to bring them to see this fun, funny musical that is larger than life in multiple ways. This first production of The Young People’s Theatre of Chicago is a sign of good things to come.
Location: The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Dates: Thursday, Dec. 2 – Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021
Times: Thursdays at 6:30 p.m., Fridays at 6:30 p.m., Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m.
Tickets: $19 (under 12) and $25 (12 and up). Available now at greenhousetheater.org, in person at the box office, or by calling 773.404.7336.
Photographs courtesy of The Young People’s Theatre of Chicago.