Vampires are fashionable these days. From True Blood to The Vampire Diaries to the inescapable cultural saturation of the Twilight saga, bloodsucking is clearly where it's at. But most of these diversions are aiming for an audience whose average age is well into the double digits. And the vampires don't have floppy ears. But this isn't the case with Bunnicula, Children's Theater of Madison's delightful third production of the 2011-2012 season. It opened Saturday in Overture Center's Playhouse.
Adapted from James and Deborah Howe's popular books for young readers, this horror genre parody - targeted at school-age kids ready to graduate from Sesame Street's The Count - tells the story of strange happenings that occur at the Monroe family residence after a new pet bunny is brought home from a movie theater showing of Dracula. This musical mystery tale is told from the points of view of Harold, "full-time occupation" family dog, and Chester, the Monroe's Edgar Allan Poe-reading cat.
It is this role reversal, getting to hear the mystery unfold from a canine and feline perspective, that gives the production so much of its heart. Because in Bunnicula's world, it's these two characters who display the human emotions. They are the ones most curious, concerned and frightened when it appears the new family pet - replete with fangs, cape-like marking and a desire to suck the "life-blood" (or juice) out of every vegetable in the house - just might be a vampire.
The production smartly stays away from tails, pin-on ears, meows or barks - our protagonists seem more people-like than the Monroes. And Nick Barsuli's Harold is a comedic joy. From his rumpled gray sweat suit, to his desire to see the best in his new housemate, Barsuli adroitly channels the loveable simplicity of man's (or in this case cat's) best friend.
University of Wisconsin theater major Victoria Kemnetz plays nervous Chester to perfection. Her movements, facial expressions, even the nerdy bowtie and sweater vest, clearly paint the picture of a character who's spent just a little too much time reading about the supernatural. Perhaps so much so that his imagination is getting the best of him. Both leads have strong singing voices, although the musical numbers, while a pleasant diversion, don't do much to advance either the plot or character development.
The rest of the cast is outstanding. Looking like a comic-book cross between Leave It To Beaver's Cleavers and Devo (the non-animals are presented in a highly stylized way, to underscore the fact that we are viewing the action through Harold and Chester's eyes), all the Monroe family portrayals are hysterically over-the-top.
The two young actors who play impishly quarrelsome brothers, Pete and Toby, particularly impress me. The fact that they are portrayed by a real-life brother duo ups their believability.
And the first grade actress who plays the titular rabbit does a fine job channeling Nosferatu. It is through her deft cherubic-faced silence that the audience begins to believe that the new pet just might not be anything to be afraid of.
Because scary as change at home might be, sometimes we need to get to know someone, or some bunny, a little better to appreciate what they might bring into our lives. Besides some very pale vegetables.