Elephant and Piggie poster BY STEPHANIE VON HIRSCHBERG

Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie picture books have enchanted children ever since they began appearing in 2007. The stories star an unlikely pair of animal “bestus friends” — Gerald, a circumspect pachyderm, and curious, ebullient Piggie. Now these beloved characters will be on stage in Bloomington for the first time in Cardinal Stage Company’s production of Elephant & Piggie’s “We Are in a Play!” at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center.

Randy White, Cardinal’s founder and artistic director, sees Elephant & Piggie’s “We Are in a Play!” as a chance to introduce kids as young as three to the theater. With script and lyrics by Willems, the musical has “a crystal clear narrative” White says, that very young audiences can follow. At the same time, clever nuances in the characters’ emotional ups and downs make it meaningful for kids as old as seven.

Unlike their literary predecessors, the stage versions of Piggie and Gerald are clearly human. Only the color of their costuming and a cluster of squiggly hair ribbons hint at their animal origins. “We don’t want anything mediating between actors and audience,” says White. “Animal costumes would be a distraction.”

The show also represents another opportunity for Cardinal to advance its educational mission. Teachers are huge fans of the Elephant & Piggie series, regarding them as classics in the early reader category. Two of the 24 titles (a 25th comes out in May) have won Theodor Seuss Geisel awards. “I would say that on any given day, someone is using an Elephant & Piggie book in the classroom,” says Darin Somers-Glenn, a teacher at Templeton Elementary School.

A study guide created by Cardinal’s education committee aims to make the teachers’ task easier. “There are scenes in the musical that give children a chance to talk about friendship, sharing, and cooperation,” says Lisa Champelli, a committee member and children’s strategist at Monroe County Public Library. An illustrated handout, “What to Expect When You See a Play,” available on the library’s website, also helps parents and teachers prep novice theatergoers for the event.

Cardinal has scheduled enough weekday matinees during the show’s April 30–May 15 run to accommodate 2,250 pupils from 23 local schools. Kids from Title I schools will attend free of charge, courtesy of a donation from the 100+ Women Who Care philanthropic group. For information about tickets and the study guide, visit cardinalstage.org.