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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Ferdinand the Bull

Ferdinand the bull
Ben Phipps (on guitar) and Joe Coots
The Arden Theatre's new show, Ferdinand the Bull, has some important things to teach children and goes out of its way to charm them. Youngsters will probably like it - my young niece and nephew thought it was terrific - but it's too slight to make grownups happy.

Ferdinand is based on the Munro Leaf-Robert Lawson children's book about a bull who'd rather sit and smell flowers in the Spanish countryside than be in a bullfight. It's a great book, but a short one; Walt Disney's 1938 animated version told the whole story in eight minutes. The stage adaptation pads it out to an hour by adding a parallel story about a pompous Duke whose son wants to be a dancer; instead, the son is forced to become a matador, and that leads him to a bullring where he ends up facing you-know-who. There's also a female pig who serves as the liaison between Ferdinand and the humans, and a handful of songs with Spanish flavor played by a talented guitarist.

The two stories complement each other well; they illustrate how kids should, as the final song puts it, "have the courage to just be you." But the show doesn't have the courage to just be a sweet, gentle story like Leaf and Lawson's original. Instead, we get a lot of vaudeville-style gags and some cutesy, forgettable tunes. It's not horrible, but it's not really Ferdinand the Bull either.

There are some funny moments, mostly thanks to the outlandish mugging of Tom Teti as the Duke. Unfortunately, though, most of the jokes in Karen Zacarias' script fall flat. Zacarias favors puns which fly over the heads of the kids, but aren't clever enough to make the adults laugh either. Jennifer Childs' slackly-paced direction doesn't help; the show drags, and the scene changes seem to go on forever.

The cast does its best to liven things up; in addition to Teti, Joe Coots is charming as Ferdinand, while Maggie Lakis is peppy as the pig. At the performance I saw, understudy Matt Rosenbaum played the Duke's son; while he seemed uneasy at first, his performance gained power by the show's end.

My niece and nephew loved this show; Allison is seven and Brendan is four, and they had a great time. So if you're looking for a show to keep young kids entertained, take them to see Ferdinand the Bull. But I thought Ferdinand was a letdown compared to the Arden's previous children's offering, The BFG, which proved that a "kiddie" show can be sophisticated enough to appeal to all ages. Ferdinand isn't terrible, but it's disappointing because the Arden is capable of such better work.

Ferdinand the Bull runs through May 27, 2007 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $14 to $30 and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.

Ferdinand the Bull
Based on The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson
Adaptation and Lyrics by Karen Zacarias
Music by Debbie Wicks La Puma
Directed by Jennifer Childs
Music Director/Sound Design... Nathan A. Roberts
Scenic Design... Adam W. Riggar
Costume Design... Rosemarie E. McKelvey
Lighting Design... Drew Billiau
Stage Manger... Francis DeSales Brookes

CAST:
Conrad Ricamora... Duquito Danilo
Tom Teti... Duque Dodó
Joe Coots... Ferdinand the Bull
Maggie Lakis... Cochina
Ben Phipps... Guitarist


Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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