Disney musicals come in all shapes and sizes, and clearly the hour-long, pre-schooler-targeted ‘Winnie the Pooh the Musical’ is not going for quite the same thing as lavish West End spectaculars like ‘Frozen’ or ‘The Lion King’. But even slimmed down, The Mouse has some serious resources, and while a ticket to ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is a splash more expensive than a show at one of London’s kids’ theatres, it has a palpably bigger budget.
The titular hunny-loving bear’s Hundred Acre Wood home is represented by a lush, inviting multi-section set, and a decent-sized team of puppeteers-slash-actors that enable the wood to remain well-populated, with several of Pooh’s pals – Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Rabbit, etc – able to be on stage at a given time. The puppets are nice too: literal in design, but that’s all to the good when you’re aiming at three-year-olds: they have an impressive chunkiness and solidity them, some serious presence.
The story is an hour-long mish-mash of various Pooh tales, that loosely follows a turning of the year in the wood as Pooh pursues honey and gets into various gentle scrapes: trying to wake up a snowman; failing to look after Rabbit’s vegetable patch; getting stuck in a tree.
It’s all very nice, though I can’t help but feel there’s a bit more potential to AA Milne’s bucolic world than is really tapped into here. The odd, strikingly existential line reminds you that there are hidden depths to his stories, but Jonathan Rockefeller’s production is nothing if not playing it safe.
I’m also a bit lukewarm on the purpose of having the animals speak in the same American accents as they do in the cartoons – it just feels like a gratuitous flexing of Disney’s IP and potentially liable to confuse young audiences that have probably been read the books but may never have actually been exposed to the films (they’re on Disney+, but there hasn't been a new one in aeons).
It’s swings and roundabouts, though: Benjamin Durham’s bizarrely accented Pooh could have stood to sound a lot more like he does in on screen (to be fair he’s the understudy – most audiences will get US actor Jake Bazel, who will presumably have the accent down better); Alex Cardall’s ebulliently pitch-perfect Tigger reminds us that at their best the films are in fact pretty darn winning. The handful of songs by The Sherman Brothers are all extracted from the various movies, and I wouldn’t say any are stone-cold classics, but they’re all pretty charming and certainly a cut above the average thrown-together bag of tunes in your typical kiddie play.
Maybe one day there will be a stone-cold classic Winnie the Pooh musical that uses the form to bring something new and invigorating to the beloved character. This is not it. But it’s rock-solid Easter holiday entertainment, and I’m not sure parents can ask for more than that.