Would Joseph Stalin have approved of Seattle Children's Theatre's world-première production of "Peter and the Wolf"?
Probably not, despite the Soviet Union dictator's indirect role in the creation of Ukrainian-born composer Sergei Prokofiev's best-known work.
Commissioned by the Moscow Central Children's Theater not long after Prokofiev returned to Russia after years of living and composing in America and Europe, "Peter and the Wolf" was written over four days in 1936 shortly after Stalin established a repressive "Composers Union" that determined what kind of music was acceptable for the masses.
A forward-looking experimentalist with an exotic touch, and composer of fantastic scores for the Kirov Ballet's "Romeo and Juliet" and, later, Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film "Alexander Nevsky," Prokofiev played it safe and wrote "Peter" as a means of introducing children to various instruments in an orchestra.
The idea was that an orchestra conductor would narrate the story of young Peter's adventures involving sundry pet friends, a hunter and a villainous wolf. Throughout the fable, each character would have a musical signature played by a specific instrument or instrument section: strings for Peter, clarinet for a cat, flute for a bird, oboe for a duck, timpani for the hunter and French horn for the wolf.
Since Prokofiev's time, "Peter and the Wolf" has become an international staple in arts experiences for kids. The script, these days, is sometimes read at public performances by celebrities. (A quick check on Amazon.com reveals various "Peter" CDs narrated by David Bowie, Patrick Stewart and - the one I'd love to hear - Dame Edna Everage.) But it's the music's melodious identities - the plaintive oboe's fowl-like kvetching, the string section's boyish exuberance and anticipation - that stick with one forever, even after Prokofiev's specific tale fades from memory.
Leave it to Seattle Children's Theatre to revive that story and reinvigorate "Peter" by turning it into a charming and funny burlesque. Yes, the original music is still there, wrapped around a comic retelling of "Peter," now augmented by dialogue, songs, puppets, shadow play and witty actors.
Prokofiev's work is honored in a kind of overture in which the characters are linked to their individual themes in a strangely enchanting way. But once this "Peter" acknowledges its source, the gloves come off: the sight gags are slapstick and surreal, the verbal sparring is crisp, and a quartet of live musicians weaves strands from Prokofiev's score into composer Hummie Mann's bursts of tango, waltz, Charleston and cartoon music. (Mann is a two-time Emmy Award winner; one of those prizes was for arranging Billy Crystal's opening number for the 1992 Academy Awards.)
The book by local playwright Allison Gregory (who previously co-wrote and choreographed SCT's "Go, Dog, Go!") sticks to the essentials. Peter (Daniel Charles Dennis) is warned by his grandfather (Hans Altwies) not to stray into the lush meadow beyond their little farm in the Russian countryside. The problem: the Wolf (a wily, hugely entertaining Altwies) is prowling around the surrounding forest, venturing out to snag a sheep now and then. If Peter goes out to play, the Wolf might get him, or perhaps it will slip onto the farm if Peter carelessly leaves the gate open.
A little worried about that possibility are Bird (Lisa Estridge), Duck (Peter A. Jacobs) and Cat (Liz McCarthy), an ever-bickering trio beloved and protected by Peter. But even after Wolf - dressed in the clothes of a hunter he ate - gets near the tasty critters, Peter boldly (if cluelessly) attempts to catch him with a slingshot, a rope and a design for a Rube Goldberg-like trap. If he can hang on to Wolf before Hunter (Jacobs) arrives - or better yet, parade his prize through town for all to see who captured the menace - then perhaps Grandfather's rebukes about Peter's impulsiveness will lose their sting.
There's just one thing. Wolf has been hearing similar criticisms from his pack all his life, giving him something in common with Peter. (Wolf, by the way, dismisses Peter, at least in cuisine terms, as probably "stringy," like celery, though he hastens to add that sometimes celery really "hits the spot.") The dialogue exchange in which this parallel between the two characters is revealed is the first hint that SCT has no intention of killing off "Peter"'s likable and, these days, environmentally endangered antagonist.
Director (and SCT Artistic Director) Linda Hartzell ultimately updates "Peter" to reflect contemporary appreciation and sympathies for wolves. The result is mixed. Perhaps we should trust kids not to assume that wolves in general should be demonized because of one character in a story. On the other hand, this "Peter" is more farce than myth, and Gregory doesn't take political correctness too far. The script notes that wolves do what they do because, well, they're wolves. And Wolf's revised fate may be worse than death, anyway, if one thinks about the play's closing celebrations too much.
But that's not the point. SCT's "Peter and the Wolf" is lighter on subtext than usual (kids can certainly talk afterward about what it's like to have grownups assume one is always going to screw up, as Grandfather assumes of Peter) and heavy on discovery and joy. If
Prokofiev's original was meant to ease children into orchestral music, SCT's "Peter" serves as a painless way to get youth interested in the composer's classic.