Theatrical Reviews: The Snow Queen
I was trying to remember the last theater review I wrote for this site. At first I thought it might be the review I did way way back in the day for the staged adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline where the main character was played by a heavyset middle aged woman (it worked quite well, thank you very much). Then I remembered that I did write up the Matilda musical when Penguin was kind enough to offer tickets to local librarians. Still, that was over a year ago and my theater going has shriveled in the wake of my increasing brood. What would it take to get me back in the swing of things? Good friends from my past, apparently.
The Snow Queen, which I have discussed here briefly before, came to NYC as part of the 2014 Musical Theatre Festival (spellcheck is questioning why I chose to spell it “theatre”, by the way). Having originated in the San Jose Repertory Theater the composer of the show is one Haddon Kime, a friend of mine from long back. Indeed his wife Katie presided over my wedding and long ago he created the music for my very brief foray into podcasting. He’s always been ridiculously talented but I confess that I’d never seen a show of his. Until now.
For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of this Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, here’s the long and short of it. Two kids, Gerta and Kai, are best buddies. Then one day two shards of a magic mirror enter Kai’s eye and heart, rendering him a cold-hearted bastard (which is to say, a teenager). Along comes The Snow Queen who takes Kai away to her magic palace up North. Rather than just mourn her friend, Gerta sets out to rescue him, encountering rivers, witches, crows, royalty, thieves, and more. When she finds Kai he doesn’t exactly want to leave, so engaged is he in a puzzle The Snow Queen set up for him. Fortunately love wins out, and the two kiddos go back home.
As the novel stands it is unlike most Andersen tales in that it has a metaphor so clear cut you’d swear it had been ghostwritten by Freud himself. The shards of glass in Kai’s heart and eye are so clearly a stand-in for the changes adolescence that it’s scary. Indeed, when Anne Ursu wrote the Snow Queen inspired novel Breadcrumbs, she made explicit what is only implied in the Andersen tale. With that in mind, I was very curious how a staged production of the show would deal with some of these themes.
Right from the start the show casts Kai and Gerda as adults playing children. This is a clever way of dealing with adolescence in a theatrical setting. Years ago the remarkable staged adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga cast two adults as Lyra and Will, allowing them to learn and grow throughout the show. And since Kai spends a fair amount of time in this show begging a grown woman in a white garter belt to kiss him, this was a wise choice.
I suppose you could say they decided to give the show a Steampunk feel. There were a fair number of corsets and goggles, but it wasn’t overwhelming. When I saw a Steampunk version of The Pirates of Penzance a couple years ago the effect was overdone. Here it was subtle, more evident in the clothing than anything else. Each character was outfitted in a simple but effective manner, none so effective as The Snow Queen herself. Played to the hilt by the commanding Jane Pfitsch, she’s a photo negative of The Phantom of the Opera, bedecked all in white, luring a boy through a window (as opposed to the Phantom bedecked all in black, luring a girl through a mirror). Admittedly her very cool costume resembled that of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” outfit from the MTV Music Video Awards, but there’s no crime in that. Her blond bob stood in stark contrast to the elaborate headwear of Elsa in the Disney Snow Queen adaptation Frozen. But it was her singing voice and violin playing that gave her true power. A very strong soprano, you can actually see her right now in the current revival of Cabaret as Rosie. As for the violin playing, this show followed the current trend of having the performers play instruments on the stage, but her violin contained not a jot of fly-by-night fakery. This girl could play! I was impressed.
Other strong performances included Eryn Murman as Gerda, Reggie D. White as a Troll, a Hyacinth, a Prince, and a Reindeer respectively, and Jason Hite as an oddly sexy River, Crow, and Italian (for no particular reason) Daisy. But the strongest actress, aside from The Snow Queen herself, was clearly Lauren Cipoletti. There is much to be said for performers that have fun with their roles. Cipoletti, by all appearances, seemed to be having a blast. First she was a rosebush, and though all she does is preen in a manner best befitting The Rose of The Little Prince, you are entranced. Later she came on as an adorable nerdgirl princess, pulling off the cheery “Never Give Up” song that might have wilted in a lesser performer’s mouth. Best, however, was last since her most memorable role was the psychotic Little Robber Girl. Singing “I Want That”, a ballad worthy of Veruca Salt herself, Cipoletti let her freak flag fly. She was punk one minute and a cabaret singer the next. She was Amanda Palmer and Courtney Love and a whole host of other wild women. You didn’t trust her not to slit your throat while cooing sweet nothings in your ears all the while. I’ve always loved the Little Robber Girl. Now I adore her.
The music? Superb. Catchy. Hummable. I have actually been humming the song “Flying” ever since I saw it online, actually. See, here’s a taste.
Neat, right? The show is jam-packed with music, making it almost more operetta than musical. Haddon mixes up the styles, creating punk rock anthems and Southern bluegrass and Irish ballads depending on what fits best. Should the show ever get picked up it could, of course, be cut down. Some songs were lovely but easy to do away with. In fact the song “Gone” was probably the loveliest of the batch, but superfluous in terms of plot.
As I exited the theater during intermission I saw a small girl wearing a Frozen t-shirt. Since it was a 9 p.m. performance she was the only one of her kind to do so, but I like to think that there were other kids in the audience in a similar state of mind. Kids entranced by Frozen who have an interest in the original source material. My husband has always said that Frozen feels more like a prequel to The Snow Queen than anything else. A cool thought (no pun intended). However you look at it,
The show ended its run July 20th and one can only hope and pray that it gets picked up here in the city in some manner. For another opinion check out the New York Times review A Fairy-Tale That Rocks in which reviewer Anita Gates calls parts of the show “evocatively effective”. Also check out the TheaterMania review which calls Haddon’s score, “an endlessly listenable pastiche with elements of bluegrass, punk rock, and symphonic metal.”
Interested in reading the original story? For the best round-up of Snow Queen works, go to the SurLaLune Fairy Tales site containing Modern Interpretations of The Snow Queen. There you will find a list that is jaw-dropping in its content. It really is a remarkable collection.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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