Beautiful songs frozen in a flawed 'Snow Queen'
Tribune theater critic
December 1, 2009
Each year at the Victory Gardens, “The Snow Queen” comes close to transfixing us with its haunting, frozen story. Each year, little tweaks and improvements are made. But each year, the show seems to fall one step back for every step forward. And thus one heads out into the cold still craving what “The Snow Queen” could be.
The problem here is that just as Michael Barrow Smith’s beautiful folk/roots music and whimsical lyrics are a fixed part of this show, so are some of the things that stop it from delivering theatrically. There are too many musicians who don’t really act and actors who don’t really sing. There are too few musical-theater professionals on the stage. And despite the annual reprises, the show still hasn’t figured out how to tell the simple story of a pair of young friends torn asunder by the Snow Queen, but repaired by a young girl’s willingness to put herself at risk for the boy she loves.
Here we have a Christmas musical that gets trotted out each year, even though it doesn’t really have a book. Victory Gardens might think about hiring someone to write one.
You could argue that Smith’s music is so terrific that the show’s derailed second-act narrative doesn’t really matter. Each year, I ask myself that question as I laugh at his wry humor and enjoy the sly melancholy of his tunes. I have to come to love such songs as “Warm Bright Beautiful Summer” and “Come Love Remember.” Truly. I appreciate its pleasures, its artistry, its dance around sentimentality, its gentle embrace of Scandinavian Gothic. I go back because the musical material seems to call.
But the story just isn’t told. The narrative of “The Snow Queen” has challenged — and, I fear, defeated — some skilled directors from Frank Galati to (this year) Jim Corti. The current production certainly has livelier choreography than in the past and, in Leslie Ann Sheppard, there is a lovely new Gerda. Corti has also raised the stakes and captured more of an emotional mood. But you still lose your way in the ever-muddy material. And when you’re lost in the theater, you’re not feeling what you should. It’s as if the Snow Queen has put a little piece of glass in everyone’s eye. Time to pull that shard out, make some tough choices, free this show and let us all breathe the cold air a little easier.