This summer, Imagination Stage is offering a really “cool” treat. They are presenting the musical adaptation of the perennial children’s classic, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” the 1939 Newberry Honor book by Richard and Florence Atwater, originally published in 1938. The book is by Robert Kauzlaric with music and lyrics by George Howe. This wonderful play has been entertaining children and adults for several decades—and what could be more fun than a family of penguins living in a home of a most unusual human family?
This production is unique because it not only has human actors but puppets designed by Alex Vernon of Alex and Olmsted, an internationally-acclaimed puppet theater and film production company and winner of two Jim Henson Foundation grants, among other awards. Alex and Olmsted are also a members of the critically-acclaimed Happenstance Theater.
The show takes place during the Great Depression and the mayhem starts when Mr. Popper, who dreams of being a great Antarctic explorer, gets a package at his door. It turns out to be a penguin. Add still another penguin and you get an adorable family of these tuxedo-birds. The show’s themes of family ties, optimism, and environmentalism are still relevant today.
The cast includes Jonathan Atkinson, Edima Essien, Sylvern Groomes Jr., and Karen Vincent. Debbie Jacobson is the Musical Director; Andrew Cohen is the Scenic Designer; Ivania Stack is the Costume Designer; Sarah Tunderman is the Lighting Designer; and Reid May is the Sound Designer. The play is directed by Nathaniel P. Claridad.
Nathaniel P. Claridad is a NYC-based actor and director. Directing credits include work at Weathervane Theatre, TheatreWorksUSA, Southern Rep., Two River Theatre, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Out of the Box Theatrics, the One Minute Play Festival, New York Shakespeare Exchange, Peculiar Works Project, and a Drama League Resident in 2016 and 2019. He is also co-founder of “Broadway Twisted,” an annual event in North Carolina benefitting NCAAN and BC/EFA. Acting credits include “Here Lies Love” (The Public Theater), “Taylor Mac’s 24 Decade History…”(St. Ann’s Warehouse), numerous regional and international credits from the Kennedy Center to the Sydney Opera House. Upcoming: directing “A Class Act” at Weathervane Theatre.
Director Claridad grew up locally, graduating from University of Maryland, and is now living in New York. He has worked as an actor at Imagination Stage in “Mulan,” and is making his directorial debut with “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.”
You attended University of Maryland. Are you from the area as well?
I was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in both DC and Silver Spring, MD.
I remember seeing the play as a child in NYC several decades ago. Why do you think this play has such long lasting appeal?
I think both children and adults are able to connect with the way the Poppers’ view the world. Their view is filled with a childlike wonder, genuine curiosity, and the hope that even the seemingly impossible is possible…like going on an Antarctic adventure or creating theatre in a living room.
You are using puppets in the show. How are you meshing the puppetry with live actors?
Alex Vernon is our puppet designer and director, and he did a genius job of ensuring that four actors are able to operate 12 (yes, 12) puppets at the same time. Not only are the Poppers putting on a vaudeville show, but the penguins are as well!
The play is geared to children, but what in the play should appeal to adults as well?
The piece is truly geared towards families, both the ones we are born into and those we choose. My hope is that the adults in the room will, like Mr. Popper, revisit dreams that they may have at once thought impossible, and be encouraged to make them possible with some assistance from their family. There’s a dreamer in all of us, no matter what the age, and we have the ability to make them come true.
You are both an actor and director. Which to you prefer and why?
I actually don’t prefer either. I enjoy both sides of the table, and find that I’ve learned a lot about my performance style and directing style because of having those two perspectives.
“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” will run June 22-August 7, 2022, presented by Imagination Stage at the Annette M. and Theadore N. Lerner Family Theatre, 4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814. For tickets go to this link.
Note: The Smithsonian National Zoo will be joining forces with the theatre to make people more aware of penguin conservation and provide more understanding of these beloved creatures.