Leo Lionni’s Frederick

Adapted for the stage by Suzanne Millerchicago children's theatre

Songs by Sarah Durkee & Paul Jacobs

Directed by Stuart Carden

Playful, Engaging Adaptation Highlights Importance of Creativity

Early in my life, my parents were very critical of my dreams of working in the arts. They were concerned about practicality. How does one make a living as an artist? How do you make a comfortable living as an artist? It’s a hard life to lead and my parents were concerned that my work wouldn’t be valued. These thoughts came to mind when watching the Chicago Children’s Theatre production of Leo Lionni’s Frederick. Suzanne Miller’s wonderful and faithful adaptation of reminds Frederick us of the importance of finding your own path, even when others may doubt the worth of such dreams.

chicago children's theatre

Frederick follows a mischief of mice (Yes, that is the technical term for a group of mice) who are enjoying the last days of summer. Nellie (Sophie Grimm), the worry-mouse, feels a cold breeze rolling in. As one giant leaf falls from the sky, it becomes abundantly clear: Fall is coming. Ernest (Shawn Pfautsch), a father-figure amongst the mice and an engineer-of-sorts, cannot believe his seasonal calculations have led him astray. Regardless, the mischief must begin rapidly preparing for the cold season.

chicago children's theatre

From here, the play follows the tensions between the mischief and our lead character, Frederick (Richard Juarez). While the other mice are collecting nuts to last them through the winter, Frederick is constantly enamored by the world around him. Everything is beautiful and magnificent to him, and he believes that collecting natural beauty and cultivating stories is more important than physical sustenance. This frustrates Nellie, who is fearful that the mice might not make it through the winter. As Nellie helps Baby (Christine Bunuan) collect a large ear of corn, Frederick overhears Nellie calling Frederick selfish, criticizing his cultivating of creativity over the collection of food. Doubtful and rejected, Frederick goes on his own way. As the rest of the mischief begin to hibernate for the winter, Frederick loses his path in the cold. Will the group be able to find him? Is Frederick really selfish? Can Frederick’s creativity really help the mischief in the deepest, darkest time of winter?

Despite all of my adult cynicism, I found myself thoroughly engaged with Frederick. The play includes fantastically written folk tunes by Sarah Durkee and Paul Jacobs, who have written music for such well known entities as Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer. The scenic design by John Musial is faithful to the art in Leo Lionni’s books, creating a wonderful texture and depth to the stage. Like the art in Lionni’s books, the design is simple, clearly crafted, and draws you in; the audience feels like they are essential to creating the final vision. The stage space is used wonderfully, too. Throughout the play leaves, flowers, snow, bees and the like come from all angles of the stage.

chicago children's theare

There’s enough in this play for adults to enjoy, too. Ernest, the oldest of the mice, delicately navigates dialog that appears to be both for children and adults. Really, it’s hard to ignore the difficulty with which this play is performed. The entire cast acts, sings, and plays instruments at least once throughout the play. This difficultly, I think, lent the play to some obvious technical errors. There were some distracting sound issues, a guitar fell out of tune that the lead, Richard Juarez, just simply could not tune, and some props clearly did not land in their intended places. Despite these issues, the performers improvised through it, stayed engaging, and carried the attention of the audience throughout.

The message of Leo Lionni’s book and this musical adaptation is simple; everyone has something to offer to the world. Practical or impractical, technical or creative, everyone fills a part and everyone matters. Together, Frederick and his mischief of mice learn that they are, as a team, greater than the sum of their parts. There were some tears in the eyes of audience members near the end of the play, and I must admit I was choked up, too. As the play came to a close, numerous children were begging their parents to take them back to the mice. Suzanne Miller and the Chicago Children’s Theatre have successfully created a world where children feel happy and wanted. What a beautiful thing to have.

Recommended

Matthew Wrobel

Date Review: October 19, 2014

For more info checkout the Chicago Children’s Theatre website: chicagochildrenstheatre.org

At The Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, call , www.chicagochildrenstheatre.org, Tickets $28-38, Showing Tuesdays-Sundays from October 21st, various times, Special ASL performance on November 1st at 6pm, Autism friendly performance on November 8th at 6pm, running time roughly 65 minutes without intermissions, through November 16th.

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