Monday, May 2, 2016

Snow White—NW Children’s Theatre—NW Portland

When East Meets West…

This classic children’s tale is freely adapted to the stage by Milo Mowery, music composed by Rodolfo Ortega and directed by John Ellingson.  Choreography is by Sarah Jane Hardy (NWCT’s Artistic Director) and Zero Feeney and music direction by Rodolfo Ortega.  It is playing at their space, 1819 NW Everett St. (and parking is a challenge in this part of town, so plan your time accordingly), through May 22nd.  For more information, go to their site at or email or call 503-222-4480.

If you go to this production, prepared to re-visit this memorable children’s classic, then you may be disappointed, but in a good way.  This version has more in common with the great Japanese, award-winning, anime creator, Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) than with Disney or Grimm.  It is more a re-imagining of Snow White, akin to Romeo and Juliet re-imagined as West Side Story or Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz with music.  Actually more of our memories of these stories are from Disney’s animation of them or musicals, as the original material is a lot darker.

This adaptation fleshes out the Grimm story and gives it a decidedly more East meets West flavor and this style works wonderfully.  The seven dwarfs are now seven forest spirits, consisting of a wise Turtle (Erik James); the deadly Shinigami (Zero Feeney); a very independent Cat (Jenny Bunce); a prickly cactus, Kaku (Alexa Lyford); the brave, Red Bird (Brendan Long); the dangerous Wolf (Sinead Mooney); and the chief spirit of the forest, the Dragon.

The Huntsman and Prince Charming roles are combined into one person (Leif Schmit), a rather awkward, inept and amusing fellow.  The Magic Mirror (Kevin-Michael Moore) is a much more “animated” and mouthy character, who is essentially the narrator of the story.  Rose Red (Kaylee Bair), the scarred, step-sister of Snow White (Sophie Mackay), plays a larger and more crucial role.  And the Queen (Deirdre Atkinson) is a much more vicious and vindictive creature than usually portrayed, more in keeping with the original tale.

 It follows the journey of Snow White and Rose Red in music, song, story and dance, all done with a precision of complexity that you have to applaud.  It is also the story of vanity, as being the “fairest in the land” may not have the beauteous advantages that one would assume.  And the seven guiding spirits embody the importance of Nature and the environment as prime movers in our quest for meaning.

It seems the Queen, refusing to grow old, and insisting on being the most beautiful in the land, must employ some powerful magic to keep up this appearance.  But that magic also fuels the rest of Nature, as well, and with the passing of time the forest spirits are growing weaker with this draining of their power.  And it doesn’t help when the Mirror, forced always to tell the truth, must confess that Snow White, the Queen’s other step-daughter, has now become the “fairest in the land.” 

Of course this means she must die but, before that happens, she escapes to the forest, where she is protected by Nature’s spirits.  Although, before she is allowed to learn the Dance that might become the Queen’s undoing, she must purify her own spirit as well, which means the ridding of Vanity, which is not such an easy chore for such a beautiful one.  After some battles, from without and within, the true test of wills takes place.  To know the outcome you will have to, of course, see the play.

Ellingson keeps the play moving at a brisk pace and, being a designer himself of masks and puppets and sets, has embodied the play with lots of vibrant color and he, with Jeff Seats, costumer, Mary Rochon, and projection designer, Andrés Alcalá, keep this show a visual delight.  The drum number at the beginning of the Act II was one of the highlights.  And Bunce in her song, “Maid For Me,” was a stand-out as well as Moore in his number, “No Fun Being the Messenger.”  Both delightful. 

Mackay, Bair and Atkinson have excellent voices and were powerful in their songs, as well as the fight and dance sequences.  Schmit was refreshing as the vulnerable “hero” and the seven spirits were all very individual in their approach and lent to the complexity of the tale.  Moore is always an outstanding asset to their productions and he shines here as well.  And, not to be ignored, the ensemble was first-rate (Niko Hellman, Kate Kelly, Sierra Kruse, Sophia Takia and David VanDyke) and added greatly to the production.

The script, though, isn’t quite up to the high quality of the production itself (and other shows by NWCT).  It tends to ramble on at times and not all the songs hit the bulls-eye, I believe.  This is no reflection on the production itself, which is of its usual high quality, but just on the script, which needs some tightening and more focus.

I recommend this production.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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