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Fairy tale glows with strange fun

'Snow Queen' provokes knowing mirth in a holiday romance

By Hedy Weiss
Theater Critic, Chicago Sun-Times
December 17, 2007

Of all the holiday offerings now on Chicago stages, "The Snow Queen" -- Michael Smith's highly theatrical song cycle inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale -- is by far the strangest, funniest and most musically and verbally sophisticated.

Original in every way, the production -- a great success for Victory Gardens Theater when it debuted last winter -- is now back for a second year with a slew of ideal revisions. And with direction by Frank Galati, elegant puppet design by Blair Thomas and Meredith Miller, beguiling costumes by Tatjana Radisic and playfully contemporary new choreography by Jim Corti that brings a whole new energy to the piece, it is even stronger this time around. Besides, any show that includes a song titled "Love Letter on a Fish" has me completely hooked from the start.

The score is the star here (I wish a song list were part of the program), and it is performed magically both by the actors and six onstage musicians (including Smith, who resembles an Irish version of Norman Mailer), all of whom have marvelous dramatic gifts. The lyrics, fanciful and fabulous, are part Sondheim, part Brecht, part Leonard Cohen, part folk ballad and 100 percent Smith in their mix of the caustic, romantic and playfully absurd. One minute it's a soaring airborne journey, the next it's a hilarious banter song for a pair of wooden soldiers. Altogether, it's unlike anything else around.

The story told is one of innocence lost and reconfigured as childlike love morphs into rueful experience. A Storyteller (the commanding Cheryl Lynn Bruce, looking like a Victorian-era Danish nanny), introduces us to Kai (the truly boyish Andrew Keltz) and Gerda (Blair Robertson). New to the show, Robertson is a tiny dynamo of an actress with an intriguing voice, palpable intelligence and star quality.

These two are adoring playmates in Copenhagen until Kai is struck by a shard of glass (think hormones) and heads off to the far north. Gerda sets out to find him (by boat and carriage) and has plenty of her own daunting adventures.

Keyboardist Barbara Barrow's haunting voice is riveting. Kat Eggleston (who plays mandolin, dulcimer and guitar) all but steals the show with her bravura scaling of that fish song and another about a princess with man problems. Guitarist Bob Goins is a perfectly goofy reindeer, and keyboardist-singer Cathy Norden adds spice to several roles. A trio of fleet dancer-puppeteers (Nicole Pellegrino, Joey Stone and Lindsey Noel Whiting) comprise the gnomelike chorus.

The show could still use a more dynamic opening, but once "The Snow Queen" hits her stride, she will have you under her spell.

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