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The Happy Prince

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

A fable written by Oscar Wilde could only be so conventional. Take, for example, The Happy Prince: This story, about a golden statue and the migratory swallow he teaches the virtues of self-sacrifice and the importance of inner beauty above physical attractiveness, is charming, but traditional and sad, most appropriate for being read by a loving parent. How many people would see a musical in this story?

Frank Schiro did, and his resulting adaptation, The Happy Prince, can now be seen at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. While Schiro's writing and the production under Shawn Churchman's direction are amiable, cute, and highly appropriate for the whole family, the show is never as effective - or moving - as Wilde's original take-no-prisoners approach.

The story has, for starters, become something of a love affair between the statue (played by Tally Sessions), and the swallow, here a female named Rara Avis and played by Cristin Boyle. The self-absorbed bird gets taken in by the statue while on a stopover en route to Cairo to pursue her singing career, but the plot otherwise unfolds as Wilde dictated: The Prince encourages the bird to remove the jewels and gold from him and distribute them among the worthy poor of the town he once ruled, and the two slowly discover their feelings for each other and for helping others.

The new vaguely romantic element is never heavily emphasized, but dilutes the tale's emotional impact somewhat. (The story also now ends happily for the swallow, if not necessarily the Prince.) And while it's easy to understand why Schiro thought it necessary to build up the subsidiary characters - including the two self-serving town councilors (Tim Howard and Roland Rusinek) and three of the people the Prince helps (Joan Barber plays a poor seamstress, Billy Sharpe a struggling playwright, and Samantha a match girl - these additions add bulk but very little depth.

The score is much the same. A great deal of Schiro's music is lovely and possesses an appropriately tinkling and magical fairy-tale quality, but it's generally low on emotional content. True, Rara Avis gets a few numbers that detail her shift in character, and these are effective at communicating the story's central idea. But otherwise there are a number of plot songs, buffoonish trifles for the councilors, and lots of close harmony singing for Rara Avis's family (a singing group named The Feathered Family Four) that feel more like filler than thoroughly integrated material.

The production itself is immensely attractive, one of the more opulent of this year's NYMF shows. There are numerous, gorgeous, and imaginative costumes (by Cindy Capraro) and colorful storybook sets (by David Esler), but Churchman also has plenty of creative staging concepts - often involving the use of shadow and silhouette that lighting designer Bobby Harrell assist him with - that give the show a magical, improvisatory quality and a look and feel all its own. The musical direction (by David Bishop) and choreography (by Susan Ancheta) are not of lesser quality.

Boyle is particularly ingratiating as Rara Avis, singing well across a wide range of styles (and notes), and is well matched by the quite, gentle strength that Sessions brings to a role that often requires him to stand motionless for long periods of time. Barber brings a touch of mysteriousness (and a rich, beautiful voice) to the seamstress, and both Sean J. Moran as her son Luke and Grossman give nicely natural, watchable performances. While Howard and Rusinek are fine, if a bit over-exaggerated, as the councilors, the rest of the show basically goes to the birds: Leslie Ann Hendricks, Rachel Coloff, and Cullen R. Titmas provide very funny showstopping performances as Rara Avis's family, and Eric Millegan is a hoot as a pigeon - complete with bobbing head - that sings of the virtues of "Dignity."

Of course, most of this is highly antithetical to Wilde, and purists aren't likely to appreciate the broadening and shallowing of the original story. But, for what is, The Happy Prince is hardly unsuccessful, and it's well-meaning and accomplished enough that it will probably find most family audiences leaving the theater every bit as happy as the golden Prince appears.

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New York Musical Theatre Festival
The Happy Prince
Through October 2
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission
Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101