An archway of balloons, a red carpet and more are on the playbill when Theatre of Youth opens "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical" at 8 tonight with all kinds of family-friendly Curtain Up! hoopla for the kindergarten set.
Meg Quinn, Theatre of Youth artistic director, said last year's smash success of "Pinkalicious" inspired the theater to look for another picture book-inspired play to bring young families into the Curtain Up! festivities.
"Folks with younger kids are looking for things to do. Parents are looking for a family activity that's not electronic, a chance to be together and interact with other kids, in a beautiful space," she said.
The musical, adapted from Mo Willems' best-selling picture book, was originally commissioned by the Kennedy Center, and Willems wrote the script.
The TOY production lasts about 50 minutes and is targeted at children ages 4 and older. The story is one Quinn thinks young children and older children with younger siblings will relate to.
A dad takes his toddler on a trip to the Laundromat but doesn't realize that her beloved Knuffle (pronounced Kanuffle) Bunny has been left behind in the washing machine. Trixie screams her distress in a nonsense song titled "Aggle Flaggle Klabble," and Mom finally figures out what's wrong. Dad redeems himself by diving into the washing machine to rescue the bunny.
"What I like about the story is you have this toddler who has not learned language yet," Quinn said. "Her communication is limited. You have a dad who thinks handling a toddler can't be all that cumbersome, wanting to have a good day together. It had big extreme possibilities that are fun on the stage."
Willems, who got his start as an animator and writer for "Sesame Street," drew animated characters against realistic backgrounds based on his Brooklyn neighborhood for the original picture book.
For the Theatre of Youth production, videographer Brian Milbrand "had been videotaping all kinds of Buffalo scenes," Quinn said. When Trixie and her dad are walking to the Laundromat, TOY audiences "will see all these projections of Buffalo landmarks and Buffalo scenes. We've placed the story in Buffalo. People will recognize the zoo. It's just fun. It feels like this is our hometown."
The set features "three big washing machines we built," Quinn said, and a dramatic scene where "dad is attacked by laundry, the giant clothes are chasing him, all these clothes tumbling around" until he finally finds Knuffle Bunny.
Director Michael Walline said the big challenge "for me as a choreographer was how to manipulate the clothing in a way that it looks alive." He credited the TOY design team, including lighting designer Todd Proffitt, props designer Ken Shaw and sound designer Chester Popiolkowski, for bringing the scene to life using "black light to make the dancing laundry be seen but not the actors. He added: "We have created a wonderful world inside a washing machine that looks quite fantastic."
Quinn said every performance of the show will include another 15 minutes of talkback so kids can ask questions about how the production was put together.
She imagines they'll "want to know how the clothes moved all over the stage, if the washing machines are real."