Dancing and singing puppets are expected to steal the show when the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State presents a new musical adaptation of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” on Sunday in Eisenhower Auditorium.
Direct from a smash-hit New York and London West End season, this live-action musical production based on the 1938 award-winning book by Richard and Florence Atwater, tells the story of a poor Oklahoma house painter named Mr. Popper and his family, who live in the small town of Stillwater in the 1930s. The Poppers unexpectedly come into the possession of a pair of penguins.
As the birds grow, become smitten with each other and multiply, Popper decides to turn the brood into a circus act. Over time, though, he realizes a circus in the southern plains is no place for cold-climate creatures. So, he hatches a plan to make a new home for them at the North Pole.
The show features human actors, performing penguin puppets and original songs.
In the role of Mr. Popper is Kirk Bixby, a New York City-based performer and puppeteer who originally wanted to teach music but ended up switching to theater and leaving college to join a contemporary dance company. After touring with “Fiddler on the Roof,” Bixby went on to perform circus arts.
“I was concentrating heavily in circus arts when I ended up getting an injury, and out of that injury I started practicing puppetry in my recovery,” he said. “And that turned into a new love.”
After auditioning for the national tour of the PBS kids’ show “Jim Henson’s Dinosaur Train Live” Bixby was given the opportunity to become a puppeteer and ended up landing the job.
“I just absolutely fell in love with puppetry,” he said. “I ended up combing all the skills through the years, with a lifetime of dancing, theater and the circus arts. Ever since then, my career just took off in puppetry. And I’m all the more grateful for it.”
Bixby’s work with “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” came about when he was working on a show at the New York Aquarium.
“One of the producers had seen the UK cast performing in New York and knew the tour was going to happen,” he said. “Knowing my skill set, she suggested I go in and try for it. So, I went in and had the audition of a lifetime and it worked out. I had been doing so much puppetry for years, it was nice to actually get to sing again.”
Bixby is also the puppet captain, which means that he maintains the puppets, making sure they are repaired and ready to go for each show.
“I also get to make sure that our puppeteers are healthy and doing what they need to do — making sure that their performances are clear and that the puppetry element of the show is where we want it to be,” he said.
The book takes place in Stillwater, Oklahoma, but this production, is set in a fictitious town in England. This one-hour performance is entirely in a British dialect.
“We are the U.S. tour of their version of the show,” Bixby said. “It is slightly different than the book, but it is truer to the story than the movie version, the Jim Carrey film. They made it very contemporary for the movie version, where we are much closer to the 1938 book, in style, music and appearance.”
A relatively small cast of only eight people, the show also includes two other people backstage who work on the props and costume changes that need to happen very swiftly in the show for all the characters that are introduced, as well as one lighting board operator and one sound designer.
“We are very lucky that the people we found are very talented; especially our puppeteers, who really bring those penguins to life,” Bixby said. “They do a terrific job of making those penguins really active and amusing for everybody.”
The life-size puppets were designed in the UK by Nick Barnes, who works with Pins & Needles Productions.
“They are absolutely beautiful, and not just on stage but up close,” Bixby said. “Every little detail is made to be very functional, yet very easy to use, which is exactly what you want from a puppet. Just looking into the eyes of these puppets, you already feel like they’re alive. They look very close to real penguins.”
This production is traveling to 32 states during a five-month tour, and Bixby is delighted to bring a familiar story that is so magical and endearing to children.
“It instills a love of literature and of theater, and you can really connect to animal life,” Bixby said. “It’s such a pleasure to do children’s theater. It’s not just something to entertain your kids with for an hour — it can be very impactful, touching and hopeful.”
From an audience member’s perspective, Bixby thinks there is nothing like sitting in an audience of children, even when you’re an adult.
“It just brings you right back to childhood,” he said. “We have a song at the very end of our show where we actually get the whole audience up and dancing and acting like a penguin. We like to send everybody out on a high note. Something as joyous as a children’s show is surprisingly wonderful and refreshing for adults and children alike.”
IF YOU GO
- What: “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”
- When: 4 p.m. Sunday
- Where: Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park
- Info: www.cpa.psu.edu