This has been a year filled with exciting firsts and débuts for the Kennedy Center, and the current feature of its Family Theater—the world première of “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!”—is a capstone of those offerings.
The children’s musical is a stage adaptation of the widely popular picture book of the same name, written and illustrated by beloved children’s author Mo Willems—who is serving as the first Education Artist-in-Residence. He’s developing collaborative artistic experiences throughout the center, including its 130,000 square-foot REACH indoor/outdoor campus, the new expansion of the Kennedy Center.
Willems’s award-winning books have brought smiles, giggles and delight to children across the nation, with seemingly simple illustrations that convey joy, frustration and pleas with just a slant of an eyebrow or position of an eyelid.
That range of emotions is humorously portrayed in the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” book, and the challenge of bringing all that to the stage was deftly met by Willems, who teamed up with “Muppet Babies” executive producer Tom Warburton to write the script.
“The world Mo created in the book just explodes on stage in a three-dimensional way with wonderful characters and original songs,” said director Jerry Whiddon. “The music is central to the story and was composed by Deborah Wicks La Puma, who also wrote the music for Willems’s ‘Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Play!’ The movement is guided by a brilliant choreographer, Jessica Hartman, and gives physical shape to the songs to move the plot along in the spirit of the music and the play.”
To expand the story of the book for the stage, new characters were added to the cast of Pigeon and the Bus Driver—including a Hot Dog Vendor, a Little Old Lady, the Duckling and a Nerdy Teen—portrayed by a team of talented actors and puppeteers to present a production chock full of fun and feathers.
“Pigeon is a great character. He’s funny and smart and witty. But when we first see him, he is not happy, because he never gets to do anything he wants. As in the book, Pigeon doesn’t get to drive the bus, but when he and the Bus Driver form a friendship, and a near catastrophe occurs, he discovers what he can do and saves the day!” said Whiddon. “Pigeon, literally, gains perspective. It’s all about gaining perspective and as they say, not getting what you want, but getting what you need. Part of the excitement of being alive on this earth is realizing the things that you, uniquely, can do.”
Whiddon, who has been directing and acting in theater productions for nearly 50 years, sees this show as a wonderful introduction for children to the realm of live performance.
“There is a special joy in doing a show for young audiences, because their imagination is so active and accessible,” he said. “I hope families will go out humming the songs and kids will be wanting to do their own play about Pigeon!”
Collette Caprara is a local writer and artist.