When the Canadian theater artist Jim Morrow set out 20 years ago to create a stage version of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” the megaselling children’s book by the beloved American author Eric Carle, he was initially at a loss.
For one thing, the story — about a caterpillar who chomps his way through a series of ever-larger meals on the way to his ultimate transformation into a gorgeous butterfly — lacked conflict and, therefore, drama. Then there was the brevity of the 22-page book, which even at the most leisurely pace takes about five minutes to read aloud.
Fortunately, Morrow, now managing artistic director of Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia, was able to confer with the author himself, then in his early 70s.
“I trust that if you just tell the story,” Carle told Morrow, “young children will respond positively to it.”
And so they have. Morrow’s adaptation, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Other Eric Carle Favourites,” has been touring internationally for two decades, during which it’s been seen by an estimated three million people, most between the ages of 2 and 7.
“The decision we made early on was to do an adaptation that closely resembles what Eric was intending in his work,” Morrow says, noting that “The Hungry Caterpillar” — which has sold more than 50 million copies since it was published in 1969 — is most remarkable for its unique, collage-like illustrations. “We wanted to make sure that everything onstage looks just like it does in the book, so that children who come to see their favorite characters won’t be disappointed.”
The current tour, which also dramatizes Carle’s “The Mixed-Up Chameleon” and “Little Cloud,” makes a stop in October at the Lexington Opera House (with public performances on Oct. 6 and 12) in partnership with Lexington Children’s Theatre.
“I first saw Mermaid Theatre in the early ’80s in New York and since then I have been fascinated with their artistry,” LCT producing director Larry Snipes says. “They are an incredible company that will bring a new and exciting experience to our audience.”
At the center of that experience is a group of brightly colored, elaborately carved puppets that bring Carle’s book illustrations to life. In a remarkable bit of theatrical sleight-of-hand similar to that used in the Broadway version of “The Lion King,” the puppets, illuminated with ultraviolet light, are operated onstage by two human performers wearing all-black outfits and masks that render them all but invisible.
Morrow solved the problem of the story’s too-short duration by evolving the caterpillar’s Slinky-like movement and other elements into a scenario that takes 18 minutes. He rounded out the program with dramatizations of the chameleon, who tries on so many guises that he confuses even himself, and the little cloud, who demonstrates individuality in a sky full of conformity.
“These are simple, beautiful stories that resonate with really young minds,” he said. “The caterpillar shows us that if you work hard, then things can happen. The little cloud instructs children how they can be independent but connected. And the chameleon tells kids: Be happy with who you are.”
“The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Other Eric Carle Favourites”
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
When: 2 p.m. Oct. 6, 11 a.m. Oct. 12
Tickets: $20-$25; the Oct. 12 performance is pay-what-you-can
Info: 859-254-4546 or at lctonstage.org