SEATTLE TIMES Dec 2016 STELLALUNA in the Seattle Children's Theatre
Bats don’t get much respect — from humans, anyway. These nocturnal creatures have been demonized for centuries by many cultures. They’ve been branded as vampires who thrive on human blood (in countless B horror movies). They’ve been feared as guardians of the underworld and misclassified as carriers of rabies. And interpreted as bad omens? Yes, with a shudder.
So why would a juvenile bat be the star of a best-selling children’s book? And why would Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) think that a play based on that book, Janell Cannon’s “Stellaluna,” would be suitable for very young audiences?
Maybe because SCT productions often focus on animal or human characters who tend to be shunned out of ignorance. (Though in Chinese mythology, bats are considered symbols of good luck.) And also because this collaboration with Speeltheater Holland, which had its American debut at SCT in 1997, is such a charmer.
There is certainly nothing scary about the fruit bat Stellaluna, one of the vivid puppets that bring the tale to life. Actually it is the sweet little bat who is frightened, after being separated in the forest from her doting mother.
She doesn’t know how to fly yet, so can’t hunt for food. To survive, she must join a nest of friendly, chatty baby birds and their welcoming mother. It means eating worms instead of mangos and being taunted for comfortably hanging by her feet from a tree limb (which bats naturally do). These are hard challenges, but Stellaluna tackles them.
Relayed in boisterous, madcap fashion by a gregarious piano player (the multitalented whiz Christian Duhamel) and several others who triple as puppeteers, singers and fellow narrators (Molli Corcoran, Jose Abaoag, Frances Leah King and Michael Feldman), “Stellaluna” didn’t scare the crowd of 3- to 5-year-olds at a weekday matinee in SCT’s cozy Eve Alvord Theatre.
They were, in fact, the perfect target audience for Saskia Janse’s hourlong adaptation of the book and for director Onny Huisink’s eye-catching scenic and puppet designs. The latter include bats with broad wings that fold up and eyes that glow in the dark and a very imposing flying owl who tap dances.
Young children, I’d wager, have fewer preconceptions about bats than their elders, and are less put off by them. Here these creatures (who are mammals, not birds) are demystified in an informative but nondidactic way, with information imparted through humor (the birds are real wiseguys), music and dance, shadow and hand puppets, as well as narration.
Under recently retired artistic director Linda Hartzell’s attentive leadership, SCT shows have aimed to impart factual material, but also lessons about tolerance, trust, friendship and other virtues. “Stellaluna” is no exception: The baby bat learns how to adapt to survive, and her fine-feathered friends learn to respect interspecies differences.
Spoiler alert: If Mama Bat didn’t return in the end, for a happy reunion with Stellaluna, the show would end on a note of tragedy. But there’s certainly enough of that to soak up as one ages. And though some children may feel a bit anxious at the thought of losing their own mother or dad, the show is more often beguilingly upbeat. And it deals with separation anxiety with a gentle hand.
PARENTMAP: 'Stellaluna' Dares to Be Different
performed through Jan. 15 at Seattle Children's Theatre, this sweet story with a universal message is truly for all ages
The bottom line
Stellaluna, a play adapted from the popular picture book by Janell Cannon, is a nocturnal adventure with music, dance, puppets and humor. This sweet story about celebrating differences is on at Seattle Children's Theatre throug Jan. 15. Kids as young as 3 will appreciate the staging and the story, and older kids will love it as well.
Stellaluna follows the adventures of a baby fruit bat who gets separated from her mother. She ends up staying with a family of birds and laments the fact that she is different.
The set for the play is spare, with a piano, trees and stumps on casters for moving around the stage. The five actors are barefoot, dressed plainly in black and purple and fully visible to the audience as they work the puppets. The play opens with the pianist calling for Stellaluna. Instead of a fruit bat, a tap dancer, a bouncy guy named Bobo and two singers come in, but no bats. Soon, Stellaluna’s mother, a large bat puppet, is revealed hanging from a tree. She opens her wings and we finally see the baby bat Stellaluna.
At first, my companions and I were unsure if the staging of this play, with visible puppeteers would “work” for us — but the acting was so good that it pulled us into the story. The dialogue follows the book, and the songs add to the experience.
Other fun staging notes: During the night scenes, you see shadows of the bats flying on the stage backdrop, and the bats’ eyes light up (my son’s favorite part!).
We especially enjoyed Christian Duhamel’s performance. As pianist, actor and music director, he effortlessly played complicated passages — often in funny body positions such as standing on the piano bench — to the delight of the audience.
Tip: Be sure to stay after the performance and to bring your camera and a pen. As with all SCT productions, the actors stay after the show to interact with guests and give autographs. At Stellaluna, after the show, actors continue the conversation about the play’s theme by asking children to name things that are different about themselves.
Parents should know
SCT recommends this play for ages 3 and older. I brought a 9-year-old girl and a 9-year- old boy and they both loved the show. My son read the book aloud to his friend on the way and I recommend reading the book before the show with your child. I think 3 years and up is a good recommendation.
“My favorite part was JoJo bouncing!”
Tiffany Doerr Guerzon