No sarcasm is implied when I say the greatest praise one can give Seattle Children's Theatre's wildly imaginative production of "Goodnight Moon" is that this famous bedtime story doesn't put anyone to sleep.
The 60-year-old, soothing, booklength prose-poem written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated with an arresting, avant-garde edge by Clement Hurd is a classic of soporific literature (in the best sense) for children.
As stories go, "Goodnight Moon" isn't a journey but a destination, not so much action as arrival. The entire tale is the final moments of a little one's day, when it's time for young Bunny to quickly take stock of, and say goodnight to, the fixed points in his world. There's the big green room in which he's watched over by the Old Lady, where mittens and socks hang to dry, a telephone sits idly, a pair of kittens and a mouse play, a toyhouse and red balloon await tomorrow's adventures, and the moon is reliably visible through the window.
"Goodnight stars/Goodnight air/Goodnight noises everywhere," goes the final pages of Bunny's reassuring ritual that everything will be exactly the same in the morning, that it's safe to go to sleep. But much of the appeal of "Goodnight Moon" is also in the way it reflects the mystique that objects and places have for young children. SCT's world-première stage adaptation gets both of the story's values right: the enigma as well as the certainty.
A reader can't help but look deeply into Hurd's panoramic view of the big green room and wonder, with open heart, about the life that is led there and the story behind many of its details: the pictures on the walls, the light in the toyhouse that stays on all night, a bowl of mush left untouched. All of these things and more are in SCT's take on "Goodnight Moon" (though not, from what I recall, the most mysterious feature in Hurd's design: an unidentifiable, purple oval that appears and reappears at different points in the room).
Each is quite alive, too, in Jennifer Lupton's set design, which manages to retain the essential stillness of the book while enlivening aspects of it for playwright-songwriter Chad Henry's musical comedy version. Following the Saturday matinee I saw, Lupton talked to the audience at length about how "Goodnight Moon" is different from most of SCT's adaptations of literary works. So important is the big green room to this story that the script and set were born in the same conversations among Henry, Lupton and director Linda Hartzell.
The show's biggest challenge is in deriving a narrative from "Goodnight Moon"'s particulars without betraying its quiet-hour tone. Henry's strategy is to take a cue from the clock Hurd put on a mantel in his 1947 illustrations, which reads 7 o'clock at the beginning of the book and last reads 8 when Bunny is fast asleep. An hour is plenty of time for a tyke to avoid the inevitable, and as the hands on Lupton and company's corresponding clock make their way toward 8 (the play runs longer than an hour, so the clock is not displaying real time), Bunny finds scores of excuses not to settle down.
Of course, why should he with so much life in the room? His red balloon displays a mind of its own (cue memories of Albert Lamorisse's 1956 film "Le Ballon Rouge"), a blue lamp and the aforementioned clock dance, the kittens and mouse wreak havoc with the Old Lady's knitting, three bears from a painting on the wall step in for a visit, and Bunny's bedding and mattress won't stop moving around, as if by an unseen hand?
While the Old Lady (Sharva Maynard) protests about "pandemonium," Bunny (Matt Wolfe, a convincing bundle of irrepressible energy) whirls and climbs and worries about his loose tooth. He also meets characters who, as with the bears, inhabit paintings in the room. One of the most inventive moments finds a gigantic replica of Brown and Hurd's other hare-oriented masterpiece, "The Runaway Bunny," wheeled out to center stage, where oversized replicas of its familiar, board-book pages are turned and read aloud to a predominantly pre-kindergarten audience.
But it's the play's more mysterious moments that get under the skin: a growing awareness that something quite magical is going on in that illuminated toyhouse, that the moon and stars, in their permanence, are a bridge not only to morning but all of Bunny's tomorrows. For now, though, all that really matters is that one more day ends and innocence is affirmed a little longer.
Along with fellow SCT vet Maynard, Auston James and Jayne Muirhead are very good in a variety of parts. Henry's music and lyrics have an appropriately nocturnal air at some turns, carnival-like atmosphere at others. (A lovely folk song from somewhere in Eastern Europe that the play's creators found adds a measure of beauty toward the end.)
The blueprint of SCT's production of "Goodnight Moon" is already in demand at children's theaters around the country. See the original now; it's certain to be remembered as a high point in the company's history.
Seattle Children's Theatre
201 Thomas St. at Seattle Center
Through March 10
Tickets: $16-$32, 441-4422 or www.sct.org