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'Queen' reigns with rich talent

Fairy tale casts spell yearly

By Hedy Weiss
Theater Critic, Chicago Sun-Times
December 10, 2008

This winter is "take three" for "The Snow Queen," the wonderfully eccentric, balladlike fairy tale musical that shows every indication of becoming an enduring holiday season staple for Victory Gardens Theater. And while I confess it was a song titled "Love Letter on a Fish" that got me swimming back to see the show for a second time last December, after catching this year's third edition of the production I've put a star next to a slew of other "must hear again" numbers. But more about those songs later.

Based on a decidedly frosty Hans Christian Andersen story -- one that begins in Denmark, stops to hitch a ride with a reindeer during a stop in Lapland and then heads straight to an icy morning in the arctic, where a hostage-taking Snow Queen resides -- the production is a rich collaborative effort that combines the talents of composer-lyricist Michael Smith, director Frank Galati, choreographer Jim Corti and puppet designers Blair Thomas and Meredith Miller. Add a gifted cast of three actors-singers, three dancer-puppeteers and a remarkable sextet of m usician-vocalists, and you've got a show that casts one of the quirkiest spells around, even in our own frozen city.

While there is plenty to feed the eye here, it is Smith's score that is the star here. The more you hear his whip-smart, alternately sharply sardonic and lushly poetic lyrics, and the more you consider the seamless way he has stitched together such wildly eclectic musical styles to create a beautifully unified but unusual tapestry, the more impressive it becomes.

The show starts a bit slowly, but things take off for good once keyboardist Barbara Barrow, a standout vocalist, leaves a ravishing echo in the wake of "White Bees" and "Up in the Clouds." (She will later do a hilarious turn as the outlaw "Robber Girl.") Keyboardist Cathy Norden is all droll fun as the princess in search of a suitor with a brain. Bob Goins is the best reindeer this side of the North Pole. And Sue Demel puts a silvery edge on each zany rhyme in that fish song.

Cheryl Lynn Bruce, like a prim Victorian school- mistress, reprises her role as the Storyteller. And Patrick Andrews, that most versatile actor -- who has joined the cast for the first time -- adds a real dramatic spark to the character of Kai, the young boy who moves through an icy adolescence before he is melted by Gerda (the interesting Blair Robertson), the adventurous girl next door who teaches him about love.

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