The Berenstain Bears LIVE! in Family Matters, the Musical

nytheatre.com review by Wendy Remington Bowie
July 2, 2011

The Berenstain Bears Live! does a spectacular job of bringing the world of Bear Country to life. This production combines three of Stan and Jan Berenstain’s stories, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food, The Berenstain Bears’ Trouble at School, and The Berenstain Bears Learn about Strangers, into a live action play.

Brother Bear gets a case of the sneezes and wheezes and has to stay home from school. Once they get home, based on the advice of Dr. Grizzly, Mama Bear tries to get the family to eat more healthy snacks so they won’t be quite so fuzzy in the middle. Carrot sticks replace Sugar Balls and Choco-Chums, and Sweetsie Cola is right out, much to Papa Bear’s chagrin. But as part of their commitment to getting healthy, the family agrees to begin training as a team for the annual Bear Country running race. Once Brother is feeling better, Cousin Freddy comes by with his homework and Brother learns that Freddy has been taking his place on the soccer team. And Freddy has scored 4 goals in one game, beating Brother’s record. Brother is so preoccupied with losing his place on the soccer team that he neglects his make-up work and fails a quiz at school and he tries to hide the quiz from Mama and Papa Bear. Papa Bear remembers some snacks he’d left in his toolbox and goes on a bit of a junk food bender. Meanwhile, usually outgoing Sister Bear has been told a scary story about talking to strangers and she has begun to see danger everywhere she looks. She sneaks her friend Mr. Frog home to keep him safe from strangers (but bringing frogs inside is against the house rules). As their secrets come out, the family learns the best thing to do is always be honest with your family and ask for help. And with the help of coaches Grizzly Gramps and Gran, the family comes back together and triumphs in the running race.

Rather than tell each story one after the other, the three stories are woven together into a single musical play. The show is of very high production quality and the sets and costumes are straight out of the books’ illustrations. There is a spot for kids to sit down front, right in the middle of the action. The cast ends the show teaching the kids part of one of the songs and its choreography. Afterwards, the actors are available to paint bear noses on the kids, sign autographs, and take pictures. Parents, there is no question that this play is not for you—this play is completely aimed at your kids. The audience the day we saw the show was younger than I’d expected—mostly preschool aged. All completely rapt the entire time. However I think this show would be enjoyable for older kids as well.

The advantage of adapting The Berenstain Bears books into a play, as compared to other children’s book adaptations I’ve seen, is the wealth of material available. Combining the three stories made for a full, interesting story, as opposed to needing to stretch the limited material of one short book into a play. I didn’t feel that with the volume of information the lessons of the stories were as crystallized to my kid after just seeing the play. But we are able to reinforce them by reading the books at home. And I think that seeing the bears in person made the stories and the lessons more real to my kid. And she remembers many of the details from seeing the play. Also, combining the stories together gave the opportunity to reinforce more subtle themes that run through the books. For example, in one song Father, Brother, and Sister Bear are all trying to keep their own secret from the family, a more subtle theme in a few of the stories. The combination of the stories lets this become a full fledged lesson of its own.

No question that if you have a fan of the Bear Family, the experience is a fantastic one. Highlights for my bear fan were having Grizzly Gramps paint her a bear nose and actually getting to meet Sister Bear in person. I found it to be a very accessible and enjoyable theater experience for kids. When I asked mine what she thought, she said: “I loved it! I just loved it!”

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