Peter and the Wolf
Prokofiev by way of Looney Tunes
Ten years after Peter and the Wolf premiered, the Sergei Prokofiev children's symphony was adapted into an animated short by Disney in as reverent and pleasant a version as you'd expect from that company. We'll never know how the story might have been handled – or manhandled – had it been the animators at Warner Bros. who got their mad mitts on Peter, but a stage version created in 2006 and coming to the Paramount stage this week may deliver a pretty good approximation. Arizona's acclaimed theatre company Childsplay is touring the version that playwright Allison Gregory and Emmy-winning composer Hummie Mann created for Seattle Children's Theatre, and it's loaded with madcap chases, slapstick, and comic riffs on Prokofiev's score, right out of a vintage Warner 'toon. It's the first of Gregory's plays to show in Austin since she moved here with her husband, playwright Steven Dietz, and their children, Ruby and Abraham, in 2006. "I can't tell you how excited I am not to have to get on a plane to see one of my shows," she says, and having worked with Childsplay extensively doubles the pleasure. Gregory spoke with the Chronicle about animating, er, adapting Peter and the Wolf.
Austin Chronicle: Did you grow up on Prokofiev's original?
Allison Gregory: Didn't we all? I remember a cartoon of it, and the images are very vivid. And yet when [Seattle Children's Theatre Artistic Director] Linda Hartzell asked me to do it, I realized: "Oh yeah, Peter and the Wolf! I have no idea what that story is." I think we all think we know it, but I couldn't recollect anything except the wolf eats Peter, and they cut him out. Then I realized, no, that's Little Red Riding Hood. [Laughs] So I went to my library and got every possible version, from Captain Kangaroo to Sting to Patrick Stewart to David Bowie. What struck me about all of them was how close to the original they stayed. Nobody changed the story or embellished it or deepened it. So I decided to veer away from the tried and true and explore story a little more and especially the relationships between the characters and between the characters and the music, which is so much a part of it.
AC: And you went in a more colorful, comical direction?
AG: Whatever you would call Looney Tunes, we went in that direction. We went for physical comedy, kind of in the realm of Buster Keaton. It's a very, very physical show. There's a hunt and a chase and a parade. Those actors – man, they get a workout. I took what existed and stretched it out and exaggerated it and played around with the dynamics. The cat becomes a more exaggerated cat on the prowl, and the hunter becomes a little more inept in failing to get the wolf, and the wolf ends up being very wily and duplicitous, if you can believe that about a wolf – just a guy you don't trust but you don't know why.
AC: Did anyone think you took it too far?
AG: Well, my daughter rolled her eyes at some of the jokes, but no. We jumped off Prokofiev's shoulders. It is very true to the story and his music. It starts with his music and ends with his music, and in between, Hummie Mann took Prokofiev's themes and ran with them. There's a gospel song, which is probably not something you'll find in the original symphony, but there's a tango based on one of the themes from the original that he took in a different meter and made a wonderful dance out of.
AC: Sounds like fun.
AG: It is fun, dammit. And it was just fun to do.
Peter and the Wolf will be performed Sunday, Oct. 11, 2 & 4:30pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, visit www.theparamount.org.