[Free Lance-Star] YOUNG LIFE: Tales of friendship from Winnie-the-Pooh and friends at Riverside

The current production of Riverside Children’s Theatre, “Winnie-the-Pooh,” proves that the lovable, caring “bear of little brain” has the continuing capacity to win—and melt—the hearts of audiences young and old.

The show’s director Priya Paranthaman said that her team tried to stay close to the original vision of author A.A. Milne—who first introduced young readers to the whimsical world of Pooh in 1924—in this production, which includes actual dialogue from the books.

Music director Angela Donadio and choreographer Kacey Schwenzer resonated with that vision and worked in tandem to produce musical numbers with an enchanting aura, sometimes sparked by a tango or tap dance designed to convey different aspects of the characters’ attitudes and personalities.

The simple sets that allude to the charming realm of the Hundred Acre Wood open the threshold for young audiences to use their imagination and become “co-creators” of the various scenes.

As the action begins, Christopher Robin (Alivia Sipp/Josh Chapman) introduces the story, as winsome Pooh (Zechariah Beale) is happily singing and contemplating the next “little something” treat he will partake of. But it quickly becomes clear that all is not well in the neighborhood.

An assertive alarmist, Rabbit (Shannon Barnes), warns of the danger that lurks in the woods—specifically, a newcomer, Kanga (Brianne Cook), who carries her offspring, Roo (Gemma Anglin), “in her pouch!” In addition to this strange custom, mother kangaroo is equipped with a bathtub and bar of soap, which have the potential to be used for other woodland creatures in addition to little Roo. This, most of all, sparks fear in the heart of mud-loving Piglet (Madeleine McDonough) who, along with compliant and concerned Pooh, agrees to play a role in Rabbit’s plan to make Kanga agree to leave the woods for good.

Rabbit’s fearsome scenario eclipses an earlier plan that Piglet and Pooh had agreed on to dig a “very deep” pit to capture a fabled and as-yet-unseen stranger to the neighborhood—a Heffalump. Yet even Rabbit’s plan is put on the back-burner, when Pooh meets up with his perpetually pessimistic donkey friend, Eeyore (Elijah Beale), who is even more morose than usual after discovering that his tail has gone missing. Seeking clues to the missing tail, Pooh hurries to consult wise old Owl (Olivia Thomas), and the mystery is solved at Owl’s tree in a surprising way.

With Eeyore and his tail reunited, Rabbit’s plan is next on the agenda, but, with all its players diverted and disengaged, the plot goes haywire. Kanga mistakes a disguised Piglet for Roo, and, much to his dismay, scrubs him clean.

Yet, in the end, as all the characters come together, even Rabbit understands that the maternal kangaroo is not a menace, but a friend—who had been feared only because she was “new” and “large.” The woodland creatures join in hosting a surprise birthday party for Eeyore, and an over-excited Piglet, scurrying to present him with a bright red balloon, trips and pops his present. Nonetheless, Eeyore is happy to receive the remnants of the balloon and even happier when Pooh presents him with an empty “Hunny” jar “to put it in and take it out of!”

The characters’ embrace of Kanga brings a message that folks can be friends, in spite of differences, and the more you know about someone the less you fear.

Eeyore’s celebration carries yet another message. The value of a gift and the joy it brings do not lie in the object that is given but in the heart and care of the giver.

Paranthaman said that her cast and crew—including “swing” Sophia Miller who is equipped to step in for all—have created a heartwarming experience that went beyond her expectations.

“Each of the actors have done such brilliant things with their character. They are so imaginative, and I am so thrilled with everything they do, and I hope the audience will feel the same way,” she said. “My hope is that children who see our show will want to go to the library and read more about the stories.”

Having been introduced to the performing arts at age 2, Paranthaman is pleased that this production might provide a threshold for children to the unique experience of the theater.

“The actors have the ability to make a special and personal connection with the audience, and respond and adapt to the enthusiasm of each audience,” she said. “There is a dynamic that does not occur when you watch a movie or TV show and even taped performances cannot convey that energy.”

Collette Caprara is a local writer and artist.