The Rose Theater has taken on the major task of trying to make the best of the musical Narnia derived from C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The original children’s novel comes thoroughly supplied with adventure, meaning and symbolic significance. But this version, laden with songs, defuses the potential. The result, done here or elsewhere, is bound to resemble many other musicals where well-conceived details in the source get lost amid too much decoration and too little depth.
The production looks impressive thanks to imaginative sets by Edward Matthew Walter and excellent costumes by Sherri Geerdes. And all the performers in the 25 member cast give earnest, capable service in choral numbers, dance routines and two extended fight scenes. But most of those in significant roles don’t get far enough beyond the minimum to instill personality and distinction to the characters. Neither Jules Tasca’s shallow script nor Ted Drachman’s lyrics give them much to build on. Thomas Tierney, however, did write some good music for the eleven songs, but that has no effect on giving this what it needs most.
Director Jesse Jou has done well in keeping the performances sincere and not forced, never playing down to children. All the singing is amplified which tends toward distortion. Too bad. The wonderful old theater seems to have good natural acoustics.
The story concerns four pre-teen English children who, during World War II, getting away from London bombings, enter a large wardrobe and exit into another world, Narnia, inhabited by non-humans. That territory is cold and dark due to the evil White Witch whose harsh rule metes out punishment for non-conformity. One child, Edmund, falls under her seemingly friendly spell while his brother Peter and his sisters Susan and Lucy try their best to make do with what the alien environment has in store for them. Then the most special creature emerges, the former lord of the realm, Aslan, the lion. He joins the children in a fight against the witch and her forces. When the Witch claims that she has the right to execute Edmund for treason, Aslan takes the boy’s place. And the children continue their battle against sinister forces.
Clearly this story deals with war, cruelty, and politics. It includes a disturbing execution scene.Certainly the tale is no more harsh than Grimm stories but local young audiences may find Aslan’s death hard to deal with.
Well, perhaps not. Walter Shatley’s playing of Aslan doesn’t seem likely to win over many hearts and minds. Instead of a lion’s majesty, power and grace, Shatley most looks like a not very contentious member of Parliament even if, on occasion, slightly perturbed. Shatley also doubles as the kindly Professor Kirke who has been nice to the children back on the human side of the wardrobe. It looks as if the casting of Aslan spins off the Professor rather than having the Professor spin off somebody more compelling portraying the lion. At the preview evening too, Shatley’s singing, although strong in volume, hit a lot of off-notes, undercutting the interpretation.
On the other hand, Kirstin Kluver sang superbly as the White Witch. And, in the role of Lucy, young Emma Dougherty also showed fine vocal talent. Plus Kevin Mikuls and Laura Davis, interpreting Lucy’s brother Edmund and sister Susan had continued assured presence. Among the rest of the members of the cast, Wai Kim’s performance as the innocent faun Tumnus stood out, sweet and full of natural charm.
Much has been read into Lewis’ creation, about how it reflects his major conversion to Christianity and that Aslan’s death suggests Christ sacrificing his life. Such a theme seems minor in this version. Critics and essayists find many other things to ponder, including references to fables, parables, prophecies and legends whose elements resemble some details in the book. Not often mentioned but worth considering is the idea that the story refers to World War II. The children go into another territory….crossing the Channel….to a place inhabited by beasts….mainland Europe under the Nazi yoke. The Witch, Hitler-like, allows no dissent and her extreme whiteness could suggest Hitler’s crazed emphasis on racial purity. A lion is the symbol of Great Britain, and at the start of the war, that nation had lost some of its power. Eventually, though, it became strong enough to aid its allies in overthrowing the forces of evil. And a little child shall lead them.
And a little child shall lead an adult into the auditorium. Both could really enjoy this.
Narnia continues through December 29 at The Rose, 2001 Farnam Street, Omaha. Fridays at 7:00 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Thursday, December 26 at 7:00 p.m. $20-$25. More info at 402.345.4849 or http://www.rosetheater.org