Show Review: The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Other Eric Carle Favourites (For Ages 3-5)

Reviewed by Amy Wall Lermanhungry caterpillar

This past Saturday may have been the first perfect day in New York City since our dreaded icy winter.  Just a week ago, it snowed…again!  But today?  Perfection.  It was one of those New York City days where the sun is high, the sky is blue and there’s a light cool breeze that doesn’t smell anything like sewage.  When you have a day like that, you also have hundreds of window-shoppers mulling the side streets of the East Village and people-watchers enjoying a beer at one of the many pubs that have flung their doors wide open to the fresh air.  Easter and Passover were in the air and around the corner in Washington Square Park there was an enormous pillow fight taking place.  In addition to a holiday weekend, it was also international pillow fight day!

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the show I took my son and his friend to on Saturday afternoon at the NYU (New York University) Skirball Center for the Performing Arts except that the theater was smack dab in the middle of the hubbub.  It was almost a shame to have to go inside, but when we did I was pleasantly surprised.  I didn’t even know this theater existed and this is part of New York I have frequented for many years – not to mention I attended NYU for graduate school.  Not only was I not familiar with the theater but I’m not really that familiar with Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar or his other stories.  I read it once to my son when he was tiny but it never really caught on because we found it a little slow.  I know, as a bedtime book, it should be slow, but it’s just one of the books we never really got into…kind of like (don’t kill me) Goodnight Moon.

Like the books, I found this show to be a bit slow.  And while the books may not be as close to my heart as they are to millions of others around the world, the narrator of this show certainly is. elephantGordon Pinsent is a legend in Canada.  He is a household name.  I’ve always thought of him as being to Canada what Donald Sutherland is to the USA (even though Donald Sutherland is Canadian too…oh well).  Pinsent is a versatile actor, writer, and director and beloved in Canada.  Hearing his voice narrate this show was like going home for me.  And indeed, his voice is one of the elements that brought this magnificent production to life. 

Yes, I said, magnificent.  It doesn’t matter whether or not my son ever got into the book or if he kicked the seat in front of him throughout the show.  There were other children in the theater who were stunned to silence.  It was so well done that it is hard to believe it was really as simple as the puppeteers unveiled to us during the question and answer session afterward.

The puppets are made of foam, cardboard and wood. The set and the puppets are painted in fluorescent colors.  The stage is lit from the front with a black light so the colors onstage glow brilliantly – almost blindingly.  The puppeteers are on stage the entire time but you’d never know it.  They revealed their secret later: since they’re dressed in black they cannot be seen in the black light – rendering them invisible.  With the puppeteers unseen and the glowing images, the movements appear to be almost computerized – animated – taking on a life on their own.  The combination of the staging, the lighting, and the music make this show pure magic.

The puppeteers, Jackson Fowlow and Graham Black Robinson with the assistance of Stage Manger, Christine Oakley, work those characters brilliantly as fine puppeteers must in order to satisfy the very hungry imaginations of the children – and the adults.  And they do that in all three stories that make up this 50 minute performance of Eric Carle books for children: Little Cloud, The Mixed Up Chameleon, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

mermaidThe show comes to the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts’ Big Red Chair series of productions for children by way of Canada’s The Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia.  This particular production has been performed across the world for over fifteen years.  It has been produced in almost as many languages as the book has been published.  The New York-born and German-raised author of the books, Eric Carle, has written and illustrated over 70 books for young children.  His books have sold over 110 million copies worldwide.

If you were unable to make it to this show, don’t worry, it will be back…it was here before.  And even if it’s not – don’t miss out on the Skirball Center and their Big Red Chair series.  The tickets are not expensive and bringing a child’s favorite book to life in a show like this one is well worth it.  I’ve been taking my son to the theater since he was 3 years old and it has been one of the most amazing outlets for him and for me. I’m glad I can now add this New York gem to my repertoire.

Amy Wall Lerman is a television news producer, author and mom.  She has been a blogger for Motherhood Later Than Sooner for many years.  She has written several books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Critical Reading.  Amy currently lives in New Jersey with her husband, 7-year old son, and their 11 month old mutt, Charlie.