Editors' pick

Ferdinand the Bull

Theater, Kid-Friendly

Editorial Review

This Running of the 'Bull' Is One to Savor

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 1, 2009

Beating out a matador, a flamenco dancer, an autocratic duke and a bovine flower enthusiast, a pig is stealing the show at Imagination Stage. In "Ferdinand the Bull," a winsome, jewel-colored children's musical based on the classic picture book "The Story of Ferdinand," the most sprightly personality is Cochina, a sow who dreams of a career in showbiz. As portrayed by Sarah Beth Pfeifer, who capers around in black lace gloves and pink pantaloons, quoting Shakespeare and powdering her nose, Cochina is a ham we can love.

Don't remember a stage-struck swine from "The Story of Ferdinand"? That's because the original tale didn't have one. Munro Leaf's 1936 fable famously centered on a bull who refused to fight in a Madrid ring, preferring to quietly smell flowers. (The book's pacifist overtones reportedly led it to be burned in Nazi Germany.)

Since an arena non-event hardly makes for gripping drama, writer Karen Zacarias and composer Deborah Wicks La Puma -- whose collaborations include "Looking for Roberto Clemente" -- have added characters like Cochina and the duke (a droll Michael John Casey), who orders his son Danilo (Andrew Boza) to be a matador, though the boy yearns to dance. A showdown with Ferdinand (a benign Ricardo Frederick Evans) leads to a teachable moment about integrity and courage.

An Imagination Stage commission, Zacarias and La Puma's musical debuted in 2001. Distinguishing this revival, directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer and recommended for age 4 and older, are piquant Spanish references like the onstage guitarist (Michael Perez) who accompanies the Iberian-flavored songs and the castanet-clicking flamenco dancer (Renee Lamont). Katie Touart's jaunty costumes and Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden's gorgeous set -- which includes a human-size fan with an intricate frame -- allude to colors and organic shapes painted by Spanish artist Joan Miro.

If the show nods to high culture, it also revels in delightful low puns. Adults will particularly relish Cochina's starry-eyed talk about that noted bullfighting fan Ernest Ham-ingway.

Ferdinand the Bull, book and lyrics by Karen Zacarias; music by Deborah Wicks La Puma; based on the story by Munro Leaf. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer; music direction, Deborah Jacobson; musical arrangement, Jacobson and Michael Perez; choreography, Jaime Coronado; lighting, Andrew F. Griffin; sound, Chris Baine. 70 minutes.