What we have here is a failure to communicate.
That famous line from the classic Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke” is exactly the point of “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical,” which opened Friday at the Rose.
Based on the children’s book by Mo Willems, with lyrics by Willems and singable, sometimes catchy tunes by Michael Silversher, “Knuffle Bunny” is all about Trixie, a toddler who speaks gibberish only her mother understands.
The problem arises when Dad volunteers to take Trixie to the laundromat. They manage to misplace her favorite stuffed animal, the strangely named bunny. Trixie has a meltdown. Dad, of course, doesn’t get it.
When they get home, Mom identifies the problem right away, and the rescue mission back to the laundromat begins before you can say — well, Knuffle Bunny. Just because this is children’s theater, Dad must dive into the wet, soapy washing machine and battle gigantic pieces of clothing in his quest to retrieve the toy.
Expert as they are at entertaining kids, the Rose and director Susann Suprenant know how to bring this story alive for its intended audience in single-digit ages. At a Friday afternoon preview, hundreds of kids from Liberty Elementary followed the story with glee — and probably a certain amount of empathy for misunderstood Trixie.
They laughed at Dad’s spectacular pratfalls when he tried to get Trixie to walk with him. They giggled when he tried to teach Trixie to talk and she gave him a raspberry. They delighted at the bubble machines pumping from both sides of the stage. They shrieked every time Dad came in contact with a piece of underwear from the laundry basket.
Kelsey Celek and Joshua Mullady brought the oversize laundry to life as rod puppets, along with an extra large version of Knuffle Bunny, who dances with Trixie. Mullady also operates a friendly pigeon who likes Trixie, but whom Dad shoos away. In one scene, Celek and Mullady pull the pretend strings of Trixie and Dad as marionettes. The puppetry and clever dance steps by choreographer Sue Gillespie Booton add much to the show.
A painted backdrop, a double row of townhouses in an arc, dominates Bill Van Deest’s set. Sherri Geerdes does her usual great job of clothing the cast in brightly colored outfits and creating that oversized load of wash.
Kori Kay Archbold finds ways to express without words as hyperactive, hyper-emotional Trixie. Joe Lullo impresses as cheerful, overconfident Dad, and Kristin Kluver is the beautiful, patient, understanding Mom (and wife) everybody wants.
All three are strong singers, and they even get the chance to harmonize here and there with the puppeteers. Whether it’s the energetic “Washy, Washy” or the patter song “Tricky With Trixie” (tricky indeed when the accompaniment is pre-recorded) or the sad ballad “Really Really Love You,” they hit all the right notes.
So does the show, which promotes listening to and understanding your child. That, of course, can happen only by spending time together, listening and paying attention.