From “Winnie the Pooh,” to “The Velveteen Rabbit,” to the “Toy Story” movies, there are many fantastic tales for children about playthings coming to life. Now it’s time to add “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Toulane,” to that list, or better yet, see First Stage’s gorgeous production, chronicling the adventures of a very special china bunny and his many companions, onstage at the Marcus Center through February 11th.
For the second time this season, First Stage presents audiences with an engaging play that features an inanimate object as the title character. (The other was the impressive and magical car, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.) It may seem strange that a prop — a beautifully crafted stuffed rabbit, purportedly commissioned from a toy company in Paris and dressed in the finest clothes — is the hero of this story. Fortunately he is accompanied by his human alter ego, an equally nattily dressed Matt Daniels. Through Daniels, we hear Edward constantly complaining about his view, (he would like to look out the window and see the stars please) and worried about keeping his lovely hat and matching clothing ensembles clean and looking their best.
Purchased by an eccentric grandmother as a present for Abilene Tulane (a bright eyed Marianna Malinkine), Edward is exquisitely adorned on the outside, but hollow on the inside. Though Abilene gives him all her love, he is incapable of returning, or even acknowledging this affection. It is only after the bunny has passed through many people’s hands and hearts — a lonely fisherman and his wife, a wandering hobo and his dog, and a boy (Kamani Graham) desperate to comfort his dying sister, and the diligent craftsman who repairs Edward’s broken body — that the bunny understands and appreciates true, deep emotions.
Relying on excellent actors and a spare but evocative set (design by Brandon Kirkham), the audience gladly follows Edward from an elegant but empty turn-of-the-century house to the bottom of the ocean; from a humble garden patch to a garbage dump; from hopping on boxcars to performing for pennies on a street corner in Memphis. Creating each new scene and set of characters, is an amiable band of storytellers, who also underscore the expansive story with the sounds of ragtime. Brian Keys, Karen Estrada, and Kat Wodtke join Daniels and the young performers (I saw the Andromeda cast) playing a specially restored piano, a range of acoustic guitars, the accordion, harmonica, and a collection of small percussion instruments. Original music by Joe Cerqua places the story in time, accompanies necessary narration, and binds the vignettes together.
By adding simple a hat, shawl, or coat to their off-white and tan base costumes (design by Daryl Harris), the cast is especially adept at sliding in and out of the action surrounding Edward. They thoroughly transform themselves with subtle but expert character details — a specific gait, an accent, or modulation in their voices. They also literally whisk the bunny through the air, toward the stars that he longs for, but away from dear friends he has made. Actress Karen Estrada gives a stand-out performance as a host of characters, even including a rambunctious dog. And as the cold plaything that learns he has an enormous heart only when it’s broken, Daniels is superb here.
Far from standard treacly kids fare, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Toulane,” is a soulful and courageous story about the power of giving and receiving love, even under the most difficult circumstances.
When: through February 11
Where: Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Todd Wehr Theater
Who: Directed by John Maclay, featuring original music by Joe Cerqua and a talented cast led by Matt Daniels and Karen Estrada
How much? $12 - $32.50
Why go? It’s a magical story that will entertain—and entrance—all ages.
More info: firststage.org
An edited version of the article will also appear on OnMilwaukee.com.