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Chicago by John Olson

The Snow Queen
Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre

The Snow Queen
Michael Smith,
"the Enchantress" and
Cheryl Lynn Bruce

Christmas gifts are traditionally presented in boxes, but Victory Gardens' The Snow Queen, an original musical based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen, refuses to be put in any sort of a box. The closest one suitable might be a "staged song cycle," if there is such a thing, but it may be fairer to say that folksinger/songwriter Michael Smith and Director Frank Galati have come up with an entirely original concoction. The music, mostly folk but also influenced by blues, rock and even a little bit of show music, is sung not only by the lead characters, but also by members of the instrumental and vocal ensemble ... sometimes as secondary characters, and at other times just as voices conversing with the leads. Leads and ensemble alike perform in a presentational style, and the playing area is surrounded by a series of platforms (designed by Blair Thomas) for the musicians, giving the appearance of a concert setting more than a dramatic presentation. Galati's blocking is minimal, consisting mostly of varying the performers' positions in the playing area as they sing face forward to the audience. Still, the creativity of the visual presentation through imaginative small and life-size puppets designed by Meredith Miller, a backdrop of three scrolling screens cleverly designed by Mr. Thomas and delightful costumes by Tatjana Radisic, make it theatrical as well.

Fairy tales must have a storyteller, and this production has at least two. A character called "Storyteller" is drolly played by Cheryl Lynn Bruce, and she assumes a number of secondary parts as well. The real storyteller behind it all is composer/lyricist Smith, who is featured in four songs and observes the action from stage right throughout. Andersen's story concerns a young boy, Kai (Andrew Keltz), whose heart is frozen by the Snow Queen and is kidnapped by her to the northern reaches of Lapland. His neighborhood girl buddy Gerda (Mattie Hawkinson) follows him up to Lapland, where upon finding him, the warmth of her goodness defrosts his frozen heart and enables him to return with her. Keltz and Hawkinson, thanks to Ms. Radisic's costumes and their own skilled performances, make a convincingly young and sweet couple.

It's not until act two, which depicts Gerda's trip to Lapland, that things really take flight, starting with a wistful ode to the approaching winter, "November Already," that deserves to be a cabaret and folk standard. Along the way to Lapland, Gerda meets a variety of characters, like the Raven, a puppet perched atop Smith's head; the Princess of "Princess and the Pea", the Finn Woman who asks Gerda to deliver a "Love Letter on a Fish" (Kat Eggleston); and the Reindeer (Chris Walz) who takes her to Lapland. Walz's reindeer, with a more than passing resemblance to singer Leon Redbone, croons of their destination as a place so cold it has "7,000 words for snow." Smith's melodies and dense, clever lyrics deserve attentive listening. A cast recording would be most welcome.

"In Denmark we don't blame the winds," we're told in the first act. Rather, the Danes accept them as a fact of life. If Chicagoans need a little more help being so accepting as our winter sets in, The Snow Queen offers a great way to keep our hearts and spirits warm.

The Snow Queen will be performed Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through January 7th, 2007; at the Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago. There will be additional matinees on Wednesday December 27 and Wednesday January 3 at 2 p.m. There will no performances at December 24 and 25, and no evening performance on December 27th. Recommended for children 8 and up. For tickets and information, call 773-871-3000 or go to www.victorygardens.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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