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Enchanting 'Queen' begs for swirl of action onstage

By Hedy Weiss
Theater Critic, Chicago Sun-Times
December 13, 2006

Roll over Hans Christian Andersen, and let Michael Smith tell you the news. He'll do it by way of "The Snow Queen," which received its world premiere Monday night at Victory Gardens Theater's lovely new Biograph home.

Smith, the veteran Chicago folkie, has a lush, wide-ranging musical palette, a savvy balladeer's feel for a story and an ironist's edge to his lyrics; his clever way with words could give Stephen Sondheim a run for his ski boots. For Andersen's strange, Arctic-iced fairy-tale odyssey, he has penned nearly two dozen enchanted and enchanting songs, including the unforgettable "Love Letter on a Fish" (a surefire hit, worthy of a golden herring) and "The Princess and Memory" (an instant chick-lit classic).

On innocence and experience

With the help of a slew of terrific onstage musicians (the composer among them), a trio of actors and a contingent of remarkable puppets designed by Blair Thomas, he has transformed this spiritual and emotional coming-of-age voyage into a sly, hip yet still fantastical meditation on innocence, experience and the hard work required for love.

So what is missing in this show that begins on the rooftops of Denmark and snow-blows itself into the most remote reaches of Lapland? Animation. No, not the high-tech variety, but the kind that can be supplied by a director or choreographer who knows how to set the stage into a swirl of motion.

Frank Galati (who came to this project on the heels of staging "The Pirate Queen") has approached the piece as if it were an oratorio or a library storytelling session. The result is a surprisingly static show -- one that cries out (especially in the first act) for far more ingenious physicality in the actors and larger-than-life, human-manipulated puppets, as well as for a more kinetic set.

After all, "The Snow Queen" is a story that moves through the seasons and the skies, as Gerda (a charmingly understated Mattie Hawkinson, whose singing voice has a beguiling catch) travels far and wide to rescue her childhood friend, Kai (Andrew Keltz). The boy has been wounded in the heart and eye by shards of glass from the devils' mirror (a crucial, cataclysmic event in need of greatly enhanced stagecraft). And now, seeing all that is good as evil, he is lured away to the Snow Queen's castle.

An otherworldly saga

As the ever-morphing storyteller, Cheryl Lynn Bruce -- backed by Thomas' continually unspooling scroll of pen-and-ink drawings that cleverly comment on the unfolding events and songs -- helps chronicle Gerda's often odd and otherworldly saga replete with queens, crones, princesses, ravens and, yes, a special reindeer (Chris Walz).

As it stands now, the real North Star of "The Snow Queen" is the score, full of colloquialisms, icicle-sharp humor and the rueful wit that makes this show best suited for adults and more sophisticated children. Its nearly two dozen songs are ready to be recorded at this very moment, with Smith backed at every turn by the marvelously droll Kat Eggleston, the ever-beguiling Walz, the spicy Linda M. Smith and the richly moody Barbara Barrow -- all of whom are terrific vocalists and fine instrumentalists. (Anthony Shepherdstone sticks to his drums and percussion.) And once this show is literally set in motion, there should be no stopping it.

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