‘Mr. Popper’s Penguins’ brings puppet magic to Imagination Stage in Bethesda

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' at Imagination Stage (Part 1)

It began as a children’s storybook in 1938 that later became a Jim Carrey movie in 2011.

“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” hits Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Maryland, starting June 22.

“This show is full of singing, dancing, professional actors and the super treat is the penguin puppets that are totally adorable,” Artistic Director Janet Stanford told WTOP. “They also sing and dance and do a show for the audience. … Singing and dancing penguins performing acrobatic tricks! … What could be more fun than that for the summer?”

Local favorites Jonathan Atkinson and Edima Essien play the titular Mr. and Mrs. Popper, alongside newcomers Sylvern Groomes Jr. and Karen Vincent in a “dynamic cast.”

“Mr. Popper is a very beloved character,” Stanford said. “He’s a very sweet, childlike man and he loves penguins, but he gets a little more than he bargained for when he has a delivery of a penguin, then finds the penguin is lonely, so he brings another penguin to keep him company. Before you know it, there’s several pattering feet of tiny penguins.”

As the penguins overflow from their bathtub and refrigerator, the Poppers decide to take them on the road by forming a traveling vaudeville troupe of penguin performances.

“It’s set at another pivotal time in American history during the Depression when big shows were very popular with people before the days of TV,” Stanford said. “The Poppers create a show with their penguins to alleviate their financial problems and have enough money to feed their pets. They go on tour and they’re a fantastic hit. … The show within the show.”

Audiences will be wowed by the intricate penguin puppets.

“We have a wonderful puppeteer who created a prototype that is in rehearsal,” Stanford said. “His challenge was to make sure that the actors could manipulate this puppet as well as sing and dance and essentially be able to do it one handed, because sometimes they’re operating both the mother and father penguins plus a whole lot of babies.”

“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” comes to Imagination Stage. (Imagination Stage)

Beneath the cute creatures are deeper environmental themes.

“It’s also a wonderful piece about the environment and making sure that we take care of animals ultimately and protect their natural habitats,” Stanford said.

The charming production is best for children ages 3 to 10.

“It’s been read by families for years,” Stanford said. “This is a book you probably read starting at age 3.”

Stanford also said she’s excited to have kids back in the theater.

“This is something we all missed so much during the pandemic,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to give your kids a really exciting, memorable moment this summer, the most fun you can have inside.”

Sparking kids’ creativity is the mission of Imagination Stage, which began at the now abandoned White Flint Mall in 1979 before moving to Auburn Avenue in 2003.

“We’re very much about respecting kids for their own sense of humor and their own interests and giving them a first-class performance that has professional values to it and first-class performers, directors and designers,” Stanford said. “If you’re going to interest your family in the arts for their life … they need to see the very best.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' at Imagination Stage (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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