`Snow Queen' sounds good but is in need of a face-lift
Tribune theater critic
December 14, 2006
Frank Galati must be wishing that his troubled, Broadway-bound show "The Pirate Queen" had music and lyrics even remotely on a par with the gorgeous melodies and droll words that inhabit "The Snow Queen," his extraordinary but confounding new holiday attraction from Victory Gardens at the Biograph Theater.
The writing and composing of the veteran Chicago folksinger and songwriter Michael Smith are so powerful here -- and this quirky but lovely winter show has such potential -- that Smith has to hear tough truths. He has to be willing to get himself and his band out of center stage. And he has to help director Galati hire some music-theater professionals.
Right now, "The Snow Queen" is a visual mess that looks like it was cobbled together in a couple of weeks. Blair Thomas, the gifted Chicago visualist, has created some gorgeous puppets and backdrops (the Snow Queen puppet is a dazzler), but, incredibly, they're never allowed to take center stage. The ill-focused lighting is little more than a general wash. You don't know where the director wants you to look. And you tend not to especially care about what you see.
Visually, at least, the show is all about the band, when it should be all about Gerda (Mattie Hawkinson) and Kai (Andrew Keltz), the two innocent young people at the heart of Hans Christian Andersen's haunting coming-of-age tale of pain, love and self-sacrifice.
As with Smith's terrific prior VG show, "Michael, Margaret, Pat and Kate," this new piece is framed as a hybrid of legitimate music theater and a concert by Smith and his Weavermania band. Now, you could argue this creates a warm and pleasing, around-the-fire kind of Chicago evening.
Smith's musical collaborators are top-drawer players, and there's a certain charm in seeing them essay the characters from the story. It evokes an entertainment at the Old Town School of Folk Music, or even in someone's living room. Fair enough. One can enjoy the show on that level. To a point.
But these great musicians aren't actors. They vary as singers. And they do little or nothing with their bodies. In fact -- with the honorable exceptions of the delightful, earnest Hawkinson and the sweet-voiced but underutilized Keltz -- the show is far too light on legitimate singers. Whether he knows it or not, Smith has written a very beautiful stage musical, with a fresh-voiced, slightly mournful, frequently witty, thoroughly original score that, frankly, could work on Broadway.
It's so lovely that I think you should see it (although I wouldn't bring children under about 11) despite all these staging problems.
One could even live with the onstage band pulling away focus if it was better costumed (Kai and Gerda, by contrast, look great). Or if the cluttered show didn't look so much like an undeclared visual war among director, actors, musicians and designers. Victory Gardens, clearly, still has to figure out how to fill its beautiful new stage. And when you've got Thomas on your payroll, that shouldn't be an insurmountable problem.
Time after time, gorgeous little fragments of visual ideas wander on or off without being allowed to fully touch our hearts. We find ourselves desperately wanting to experience the shivers of the Snow Queen, the pain of losing a boy you love, the eventual rewards of a good and faithful heart. The book, music and lyrics -- usually lacking in a new musical -- are pretty much all there. And with Galati, so is the directing talent. It's just a matter of the production catching up with the show -- and someone coming to the understanding that musicals require different kinds of theater professionals.
If everyone could only put their performing egos aside and focus on telling and singing a show in a cohesive imaginary world, "The Snow Queen" could pierce the ice of many a Chicago winter to come.