Seattle Children’s Theatre’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! The Musical! is not a bad show—admittedly, it is quite enjoyable. However, the book’s innovative structure is replaced with an unfortunately banal narrative, eliminating the essence of what made the source material so special.
The book Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! follows a pigeon’s antics as he attempts to convince readers to let him drive a bus. Meanwhile, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! The Musical! tells the story of a pigeon who is denied his wish of driving the bus, but learns to help the bus driver in a different capacity. Mo Willems, who created the original text, serves as the show’s lyricist and co-wrote the script with Tom Warburton.
It makes sense that the plot was expanded upon since the book was a mere 161 words. Nevertheless, Willems and Warburton create a completely different story by making the titular character the protagonist. Although the pigeon gets the most “page time,” the book is formatted so the reader is put in the shoes of a frustrated adult, creating an interactive experience in which their character is the protagonist while the pigeon acts as the story’s lovable villain. Without this interactive component, the themes aren’t portrayed as effectively and the simple conflict isn’t nearly as engaging.
Another delightful but often overlooked attribute of the book is that the pigeon has no arc—the pigeon does his damndest to convince the reader to let him drive the bus, but he fails and learns nothing from it, as illustrated in the last page in which the pigeon looks at a truck and says, “Hey…”. Essentially, he ends up the same pigeon on the last page of the book as he was on the first. Forcing the character to change in the musical is off-putting and comes off as unrealistic in the world of the story.
One element I was very much looking forward to was the show’s use of puppetry; as a child, Sesame Street was my favorite television show and age has yet to affect my affinity for operating and watching puppets. However, the pigeon puppet had few manipulatable limbs and was bland in shape and color—it looked as if it could have been bought in a toy store. Moreover, unlike the adult puppet musical Avenue Q, the actor playing the pigeon looked at the puppet the entire time rather than directing his head with the same orientation as the puppet. Although this is a small difference, it detaches the puppet from the puppeteer, making it harder to empathize with the character.
The scenic design could have redeemed this, but it fell flat as well—literally. The set stays true to Willems’ original visual style, but its flat, washed-out panels feel inconsistent with the quirky tone of the show. In contrast, the zany scenic design in Texas-based Main Street Theater’s 2021 production did not look like the world of the story as seen in the Pigeon books, but it captured the spirit more appropriately.
Additionally, the music was forgettable and repetitive—I understand wanting to appeal to families, but children can handle denser material than, “Bus driver, bus driving, bus driving bus driver,” which was one of the show’s choruses. While the show’s score does not stand out, two songs manage to shine: the overdramatic bus fantasia “What Could Have Been” and the musical soliloquy “I’m Broken.”
The campy staging of “What Could Have Been” is delightful and shows that the play does not take itself too seriously while progressing the plot. On the other hand, “I’m Broken” is memorable because of its shockingly depressing opening, but the sentiment unfortunately shifts to propagate a supposedly positive message.
Much of the script’s mild-mannered humor is wacky but not subversive, i.e. a businessman saying URL endings after many of his sentences. Once again, it could be argued that the absence of wit is because of the show’s younger audience, but many children’s films such as Ratatouille, The Muppet Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie integrate sophisticated humor for all ages.
As much as I complain, one good thing that I got out of this show was a realization: I sincerely believe the reason most children aren’t funny is because they’re told by a lot of children’s media that humor is based on being loud and brash even though it is really about structure and wit. Sure, energy is an important element of comedic performance, but it heightens punchlines rather than creating them.
The show’s ill-suited production elements and writing fail to embrace the source material’s best qualities, tainting the latter’s legacy. Overall, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! The Musical! is a blast for its target audience and a fine enough time for everyone else, but it contributes to the cycle of prioritizing commercialism over quality that gives mainstream entertainment a bad name.
Lead photo credit: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! The Musical! Photo by Angela Sterling
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