Lawrence Toppman

Elephant and Piggie prance and ponder at Children’s Theatre

Piggie (TyNia Brandon, right) reminds Elephant (Tommy Foster) that he’s loved in “Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Play!”
Piggie (TyNia Brandon, right) reminds Elephant (Tommy Foster) that he’s loved in “Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Play!” Courtesy of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte

Children’s Theatre of Charlotte has traditionally started seasons with a splashy show, from “The Wizard of Oz” to Disney musicals to last year’s new production of “101 Dalmatians.”

“Elephant and Piggie’s We are in a Play!” breaks that string. With a small cast and a four-piece band onstage (usually behind a glittering curtain), CTC has lowered its production budget and the average age of the audience for its opener – but not the quotient of fun.

Author-lyricist Mo Willems (who adapted his own books) and composer Deborah Wicks La Puma set the simple tone early on: The opening bit consists of the title characters singing each other’s names over and over and telling us they’re planning to have a “lucky-ducky day.” (Oddly, Elephant has a proper name – Gerald – but Piggie is never anything but Piggie. I’ll let child psychologists explain this.)

Eventually, they meet the Squirelles, whose name is pronounced on the second syllable like a doo-wop group’s. This trio (Olivia Edge, Janetta Jackson and Danielle Rhea) comments musically on the action, as Elephant (boisterous Tommy Foster) and Piggie (irrepressible TyNia Brandon) test the limits of friendship when a new toy breaks.

Director-choreographer Ron Chisholm keeps a party atmosphere fizzing, both when there’s a literal party onstage at ImaginOn and when E&P simply skip together and play imaginary ping pong. He and the actors remind us we don’t need devices and gadgets to divert us when our imaginations work. We also learn that friends don’t try to control each other, and we shouldn’t be afraid of new experiences.

Elephant needs to know these things, because he’s a well-meaning mess: clingy, anxious, grabby, pessimistic and self-defeating. Piggie continually rouses him from momentary gloom and soothes his feelings; despite the pachydermatic legend, he seems to have forgotten things she must have told him a hundred times before.

Near the end, the two characters realize for the first time that they’re onstage in front of an audience. An odd scene suitable for Brecht or Pirandello ensues, where they address us directly, ask an invisible stage manager what page of the script they’re on and wonder whether they will exist when the play is over.

This leads to a finale where theatergoers clap along, shout “Banana” over and over and move their hands in a bizarre wave motion – a lucky-ducky choice indeed, and one the elementary school audience took (like everything else in the show) in its stride.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Elephant and Piggie’s We are in a Play!’

When: Various times Saturday and Sunday through Oct. 11.

Where: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.

Running Time: 65 minutes, no intermission.

Tickets: $12-$26.

Details: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.

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