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A 'Velveteen Rabbit' that's not fully live

Enchantment Theatre Company, whose holiday production, The Velveteen Rabbit, is currently onstage at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, has been mesmerizing Philadelphia's children for so long that its earliest audiences can now bring their own kids to its shows.

Enchantment Theatre Company, whose holiday production,

The Velveteen Rabbit

, is currently onstage at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, has been mesmerizing Philadelphia's children for so long that its earliest audiences can now bring their own kids to its shows.

The company's audiences have grown steadily over the years, and in 2001 the group sought to establish its roots and forge a new identity as a "nonprofit resident theater company dedicated to Philadelphia families." Though the company still tours nationally, it has found a home with the Philadelphia Theatre Company at PTC's brand-new residence on the Avenue of the Arts.

Founded in 1979 and known for producing children's theater that melds classic stories with masks, puppetry, magic and music, Enchantment offers educational programs such as a summer camp (Camp Enchantment at Abington's Meadowbrook School) and mask-making workshops in Philadelphia's public schools, and has collaborated with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, just to name a few.


The Velveteen Rabbit

marks a departure for the company. Here, artistic directors Leslie Reidel, Landis Smith, and Jennifer Blatchley Smith have taken an existing recording - the 2007 Grammy-nominated musical adaptation of Margery Williams' 1922 children's book - and staged a performance to go along with it.

The CD features music by Tony-winner Don Sebesky and lyricist Gloria Nissenson, interspersed with narration taken from the book. For those unfamiliar with Williams' tale, it involves a boy who is given a velveteen rabbit and loves it above all his other toys. Then he falls ill with scarlet fever; when he recovers, he is told the germ-laden rabbit must be burned. Waiting for the bonfire, the bereft rabbit sheds a tear, learns the meaning of love, loses its seams, and becomes real. (All this illness and woe, coupled with the concept of a "skin horse" - another of the boy's toys - can make this pretty dicey as a bedtime story.)

There are parallels in Williams' classic to Pixar's

Toy Story

- not only in the plot, which came first anyway, and involves a Christmas gift brought to life by the power of a little boy's love, but also in Sebesky's and Nissenson's cheerful, if occasionally too-sentimental, songs.

And then there's the live performance, which, under Reidel's direction and choreography, is a visual delight: a 9-foot-tall Nana puppet tidies the boy's nursery with enormous foam hands; characters from a pop-up book leap from its pages into action; a fairy emerges from inside a blossoming flower.

C. David Russell's design gives the production an overall air of softness. From billowing backdrops to flags that become rippling bedsheets, everything is tinged with pastels and looks nap-ready. The performers also move with a fluidity that adds to the show's dreamy quality.

Separately, either aspect of

The Velveteen Rabbit

- live or recorded - could succeed on its own, and in the CD's case, it already has. But together they're like theatrical oil and water. During a post-show discussion, an audience member asked Reidel why he chose to play the album over the performance, rather than hiring actors to sing the parts.

Reidel cited complications with touring, but really, as the simple tunes don't require vocal calisthenics, he had no excuse. Watching the performers act out the parts of a recorded soundtrack is a bit like watching an animatronic display at Disney World. It's disorienting throughout, a neurological nightmare, with the connection between sight and sound rudely severed.

There's a reason people freak out when they pay to see a live performance and receive in return a lip-synched approximation. No matter how good the lip-synching or, in this case, the pantomime, may be, it's hard not to feel that you've somehow been cheated. Isn't the point of live theater that it's, well, live?

It's not that the play's parts cancel each other out, it's that it's so frustrating that Enchantment and the CD's creators didn't see fit to unite them.

The Velveteen Rabbit

has potential as a musical, and maybe if Reidel loved it just a little bit more, he could have made it real.

The Velveteen Rabbit

Based on the book by Margery Williams, music by Don Sebesky, lyrics by Gloria Nissenson. Directed and choreographed by Leslie Reidel, production design by C. David Russell, masks by Jonathan Becker and Bruce Mars, lighting by Krista Billings.


Terry Brennan, Brigitte Choura, Nathan Emmons, Colleen Hughes, Jamie McKittrick, Robert Wagner, Susan Sweeney. Singing character voices: Emily Bindiger (Toy, Rabbit), Ron Marshall (Skin Horse), Janina Serden (Fairy), Terry Textor (Toy, Rabbit), Donna Vivino (Velveteen Rabbit).

Playing at:

Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Sts. Through Dec. 30. Tickets:

$14 to $26. Information: 215-881-9899 or