The stories of Hans Christian Andersen are still well known and frequently read today, as moving and wondrous as they must have been when first told and written. The new play at Urban Stages, Ah, My Dear Andersen, has done an excellent job of translating Andersen's stories to the stage without losing the spirit that made them special in the first place.
Aleksey Burago, the production's director, has adapted four of Andersen's tales for this play: "The Nightingale," "The Ugly Duckling," "The Fir Tree," and "The Top and Ball." He's changed the text of the stories very little, with only a bit of cutting and editing to allow for added theatricality and to help the stories to more easily fit within the format of a two-act, 90-minute show geared primarily toward children.
That does mean that you're going to see a fair amount of broad performing from the four actresses (Snejana Chernova, Marissa Lichwick, Erica Newhouse, and Nysheva-Starr) who play all the roles. But there's a pervading charm and innocence about everything they do that keeps the show in check; the actors play to the kids, but don't play down to them. That makes all the difference, keeping the show interesting and colorful enough for kids without leaving the adults at sea.
But this is a full and legitimate stage adaptation, a complete production that allows the stories to inspire imagination of the audience, without forcing anyone to use his or her imagination to see the sets and costumes. The design is so connected to the stories and the production, it feels completely germane, as if the text and physical production all were created together, instead of almost 200 years apart.
Nadia Fadeeva's costumes incorporate familiar objects (such as flippers for the characters in "The Ugly Duckling") with highly unique and richly detailed designs of her own (the shiny gold bodysuit for the mechanical bird in "The Nightingale") to marvelous effect. She has created a vastly sprawling costume plot that allows every character - from the Chinese emperor to the mother duck to a Christmas tree to a bouncing ball - to be depicted in lovingly quirky detail.
Alexander Solodukho's set designs are equally whimsical, based on paper cutouts of Andersen's own design. A combination of screens, walls, doors, and even a revolving platform upstage, the set successfully suggests any number of locations quickly and cleanly with no pauses for scene changes. (Konstanzia Koutaeva is credited as the "scenic artist," and while her exact contribution isn't clear, the set is more than good enough to warrant her mention.)
Set against the simple, heartfelt music of Colm Clark and illuminated with Ben Stanton's lights, Burago has directed with fluid, fast-paced precision, and provided too many memorable moments to be listed here. It's just as well: that would also spoil quite a bit of Ah, My Dear Andersen, as the discovery of the production's methods of presenting the stories is a significant part of the fun for both children and adults. I will say, though, that "The Ugly Duckling," with its beautifully designed onstage river, beautifully danced denouement, and hilarious central performance is my particular favorite.
However, each story is bursting with creativity, and has much to recommend it, so there's little need to choose just one; they all come as a package and work very well together. You'll probably enjoy Ah, My Dear Andersen most if accompanied by a child, but it's theatre strong and inventive enough to stand on its own and allow adults the same opportunity to experience the magic of Andersen's work.