Corduroy at Children’s Theatre Company

Dean Holt as Corduroy in the 2018 Children's Theatre Company Production, Minneapolis, MinnesotaPhotos by Dan Norman

Corduroy has always been one of my favorite books. Don Freeman was able to tell a timeless children’s story while also making contemporary social statements without ever feeling preachy or forced. I never noticed that as a kid though; I just loved the idea of Corduroy wandering the department store at night and finding Lisa to love him at the end. It seems fitting that this wonderful book should be made into a stage production because Don Freeman reportedly loved the theater.1

Corduroy, The Book

One of the things that makes me LOVE the Corduroy book is the characters. Corduroy is both curious and full of wonder as he wanders the store a night. The night watchman is kindly and protective in the way he returns Corduroy to his place when he finds him. Lisa seems mature and compassionate in her choice to spend her savings on Corduroy above all the other toys in the store. Lisa’s mom, who readers only get to know through one drawing and one sentence, seems sophisticated, sensible and competent. For such a short book, it really does endear the reader to the characters.

While preparing for this play, I learned several interesting things about Don Freeman and Corduroy.

When Freeman decided to write Corduroy, it was with the idea of writing about someone who explores a department store at night2. I don’t know if it was his intention to ease childhood fears, but that was the effect for me. As an anxious child, the idea that I might accidentally end up somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be was something that worried me. It now worries my anxious children. The story plays on that fear, but ultimately leaves the reader reassured. The kindly night watchmen simply put Corduroy back where he belonged. Lost children should know that they can go to someone in charge to help them find there way back to mom and dad.

Another goal of the author was to highlight the vast difference between the luxury we see in department stores and the simpler life most people live2. While Corduroy exclaims over the mountainous escalator and the palace-like home department, it is Lisa and her simple bedroom where he finds a friend and a home. In a world where kids are inundated with the message to consume, this is a sweet story to counteract that idea.

While I find no official biography regarding Freeman’s inspiration for Lisa, writer Lisa Roseburg states Lisa was based on her as a child.3 A 1967 letter from the publisher to Freeman corroborates that statement. The character of Lisa is discussed, suggesting that Freeman use a real “negro” child to base his drawings of Lisa on “[t]o avoid  the slightest suggestion of caricature”.4 A couple years before the publication of Corduroy, Nancy Larrick published the now infamous article, The All-White World of Children’s Books5. It would appear that Freeman rose to Larrick’s challenge when creating the character of Lisa. Lisa may even be the reason his publisher changed its mind after it (and several other publishers) originally rejected the book2. Although, The Snowy Day was published in 1962 and won the Caldecott award in 19636, according to Larrick’s research, there were very few children’s books up through the late 60s that portrayed minority children at all and fewer still that portrayed them as normal, modern children. For the 1960s, these books were trailblazing.

Don Freeman seems to have had a gift for taking big issues and making them appropriate for children. If you don’t already own this wonderful book, you can purchase a copy through our Amazon affiliate link and Family Fun Twin Cities receives a small commission on sales through our site.

Corduroy, At The Children’s Theatre Company

Lauren Davis as Mother and Ileri Okikiolu as Lisa in ‘Corduroy’ at Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Dan Norman
Lauren Davis as Mother and Ileri Okikiolu as Lisa in ‘Corduroy’ Photo by Dan Norman

So here’s the thing about the play: It is NOT the book as I read it. It follows the same plot. It has the same characters, but most of what I described above as my reasons for loving the book are not in the play. You would think this would mean that I disliked the play, but I didn’t have time to reflect on the differences because I was laughing through the whole thing.

Children’s Theatre’s adaptation of Corduroy adds a silly slapstick quality to the story. One that was, for the most part, always hidden in the story, but that I never saw. How would an otherwise sane night watchman react to a commotion in the store with only a stuffed bear to be found? This night watchman was depicted as a blowhard suffering the unlucky fallout of the inadvertent pandemonium caused by Corduroy’s single-minded quest for a button. The part was so obviously written around Reed Sigmund, who was still out with an injury, but his understudy, Dwight Leslie competently stepped in and kept the comedy rolling. (If you are reading this in 2020, you see Sigmund in the virtual production.) CTC’s Corduroy, played by Dean Holt, is more clownish than curious. Holt uses his gift for physical comedy to keep the audience laughing.

Lisa lost a bit of her maturity in exchange for more slapstick moments; and I identified with her mother, acting as the straight man to Lisa’s foibles, more than I did with the sophisticated drawing in the book. I think kids will identify with Lisa when it comes to trying to complete chores to their parents standards.

Reed Sigmund as the Night Watchman in ‘Corduroy’ at Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Dan Norman.
Reed Sigmund as the Night Watchman in ‘Corduroy’ Photo by Dan Norman

Even more important than my own enjoyment of this production was the fact that my 6-year-old loved it. When I say he LOVED it, I mean he stood jumping through the whole thing because he was cheering and laughing and routing for Corduroy to find his button and for Lisa to win over her mother. On the bus ride home, he made plans to act out the whole show as a family.

More About Corduroy from CTC

The design team for Corduroy includes Scenic Designer Torry Bend, Music Composer/Sound Designer Victor Zupanc, Ivey Award winning Costume Designer Trevor Bowen, and Lighting Designer Craig Gottschalk.

“On this 50th anniversary of the publication of Don Freeman’s classic Corduroy, I’m incredibly honored to help bring about its first stage adaptation,” states playwright Barry Kornhauser. “Who doesn’t remember a special childhood toy that we thought of as a real friend? And one that came to life (if only in our imaginations)? Of course, I’m incredibly excited to once again be given the gift of working with Peter and his brilliant and passionate team to build upon Freeman’s book, exploring what might have gone on the rest of that night with Corduroy and the Night Watchman in the department store, and also with Lisa and her mom in their apartment, in this beloved story of longing and friendship.”

Keegan Robinson and Meredith ‘Mimi’ Kol-Balfour as Ensemble in ‘Corduroy’ at Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Dan Norman
Keegan Robinson and Meredith ‘Mimi’ Kol-Balfour as Ensemble in ‘Corduroy’ Photo by Dan Norman

Parental Guidance for Corduroy

I have been shy to bring the whole family to shows recently as I usually end up having to take one of the younger kids out. However, in hindsight, if I was only going to do one full family show this season, this should have been the one. It’s not at all scary; it is short, clocking in at an hour and a half, including an intermission; and the physical comedy is funny for all ages. I would agree with CTC’s rating of “All Ages” on this production.

Corduroy Details and Tickets


1 Answers to Frequently Asked Questions on Don Freeman and his Children’s Books edited by Roy Freeman. (Page 8, Question 6).
6 Association of Library Services to Children 1963 Caldecott Medal Winner.

2 thoughts on “Corduroy at Children’s Theatre Company”

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