‘The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe’
Through Aug. 12
4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda, MD
In joining forces to create Imagination Stage’s summer show, “The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe,” the Washington Ballet and Imagination Stage have upped the bar on local children’s theater. Based on C.S. Lewis’s familiar novel, the charming world premiere production uses music, dance and sophisticated puppetry to retell the classic in a way that appeals to kids and not-so-young theatergoers alike.
It’s London, 1940. World War II has begun, and Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe is bombing the capital. After a particularly bad air raid, the four Pevensie children are evacuated to the relative safety of the English countryside. Their host is a dotty professor whose old house is filled with magic and mystery. While playing hide and seek, the two younger children, little Lucy and Edmund, pass through a wardrobe into a faraway, wintry land called Narnia.
During their curious visit, Lucy befriends Tumnus the faun, while Edmund is swayed by the White Witch, self-styled queen of the land, to betray his family. The brother and sister travel home only to return to Narnia again via the wardrobe on a rainy English afternoon, but this time bringing their siblings, Susan and Peter with them. And here begins the perilous battle of evil against good. Like the book, this musical version is rife with lessons of courage, forgiveness and loyalty.
Each of the four children is played by both an actor and a dancer. Lucid staging by Imagination Stage’s artistic director Janet Stanford eliminates any possible confusion, and bolstering the musical’s terse libretto (also penned by Stanford) with angry, playful and restless dance gives further insight into the young characters’ motivations and feelings.
The dazzlingly evil White Witch is danced by the charismatic Washington Ballet vet Morgann Rose, and her courageous adversary and Narnia’s rightful sovereign, Aslan the lion, is portrayed by a larger-than-life puppet. Made mainly from yards and yards of basket reed, the agile cat (designed by Eric Van Wyk) is operated by three puppeteers including Michael John Casey who also supplies the puppet’s powerful voice. Casey plays the professor and a helpful, big-toothed beaver too.
The production is co-choreographed by the Washington Ballet’s artistic director Septime Webre (who is gay) and associate artistic director David Palmer. Their inventive and athletic choreography executed by topnotch dancers coupled with Van Wyk’s designer efforts, make this production eminently watchable.
Standouts in an energetic, diverse young cast include Justine Moral as Lucy, and dancer Robert Mulvey as the cheeky faun.
Matthew Pierce sets the mood with an original melodic score that alternates from dreamy to suspenseful. Music director George Fulginiti Shakar (also gay) prompts strong vocal performances from the actors, particularly Sarah Beth Pfeifer who sings several of the women’s roles
Here and there, the plotline becomes a tad murky, but the good v. evil gist of the story is never lost. Throughout, the audience is rapt. There are sinister wolves, a suit of armor that comes to life, action-packed stage combat, and Aslan, the impressive puppet. Even Father Christmas and one of his little elves make an appearance. If children’s productions are judged on how well they hold their audience’s attention, then “The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe” definitely succeeds.