Edward Tulane is a very special toy. He’s a delicate porcelain rabbit made in Paris, with real fur on his ears and a collection of beautifully tailored outfits. With big eyes and a pleasant, fixed expression, he seems like the perfect gift for a doting grandmother to give to her precious granddaughter Abilene (a reserved Miranda Garcia-Dove). But fresh out of the box, the dapper but self-centered rabbit doesn’t know how to love.
So the protagonist of Children’s Theater of Madison’s current production, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is actually a prop. Fortunately, this amazing rabbit toy is surrounded by a very talented cast that speaks for him and narrates his many adventures — over several decades — that teach him how to feel love, joy, loss, longing, and many other complicated emotions.
Leading the audience on this voyage of discovery is the warm and endlessly engaging Clare Arena Haden, who narrates much of the action. Haden’s bright eyes and welcoming voice envelop the audience from the start. Her reassuring smile reminds us that even in some dark moments, everything will turn out alright for Edward. She plays several other characters as well, including the stern Grandmother Pellegrina, who tells an ominous fairytale to the bunny. Later, as a well-loved baby doll on a store shelf, she dispenses essential advice to Edward, with a perfectly vacant stare and half-smile. Haden’s specificity in these parts helps her shine.
Eduardo Curley-Carrillo is also immediately endearing as Edward Tulane’s voice. He follows the toy rabbit around the stage, expressing all the thoughts locked in the porcelain bunny’s head. Giving words to Edward’s confusion, frustration, and eventually his affection for others, Curley-Carrillo presents the rabbit as merely inexperienced instead of unfeeling. He also gives Edward an open heart and a puzzled curiosity that allow him to learn from each new home he falls into. With his guitar at his side, Curley-Carrillo accompanies the rabbit’s adventures with different melodies for each chapter. A talented musician, he adds sound effects with his six-string too, effortlessly underscoring all of the action of the play.
The rest of the cast is present onstage for the entire show, morphing from passengers on an ocean-liner who plot to steal Edward; to a fisherman who finds the bunny in his net; to hobos riding the rails who adopt the rabbit as a mascot; to a boy who rescues Edward from his undignified post as a scarecrow; to the toymaker who repairs the battered bunny after an incident in a diner in Memphis. With the addition of a coat, hat, or scarf, the actors transform to create brand new scenes, as the bunny passes through the hands of many families and gets to know many new people.
Special kudos go to movement director Jessica Lanius for the truly magical work the cast does in unison, using their bodies to form a fence, a fishing boat, seaweed swaying at the bottom of the ocean, and even glittering constellations in the night sky. Her ability to choreograph actor-landscapes is extraordinary and serves this play exceptionally well, since there is no scenery used outside of a few set pieces.
Although the audience’s imagination fills in much of the world of this drama, there were a few technical glitches on opening night that kept the show firmly grounded in the Playhouse at Overture. The cast consistently tripped over lines in the first half of the play, either due to anxious jitters or lack of rehearsal. A botched cue sent curtains onstage, then off, mid-scene. And while some character work was delightful (Hannah Ripp-Dieter turns in a lovely performance as a dog, a hedgehog, and a cursed princess, among other roles) other actors struggled with assuming odd accents and finding the emotional center of supporting parts. Mike Lawler’s scenic design, a collection of floating windows of many shapes and colors, was also strangely disconnected from the story.
Despite these hiccups, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is a good way for CTM to end its season. Based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo, the special toy rabbit’s quest to understand love is an enchanting and deeply emotional story. Directed by Artistic Director Roseann Sheridan, it receives just the right amount of magic to come to life.