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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Musical Sleeping Beauty Wakes Cleverly Updates Classic Fairy Tale

Also see Bob's review of God of Carnage

Sleeping Beauty Wakes
Bryce Ryness and Aspen Vincent
Sleeping Beauty Wakes, the new musical theatre version of the classic Charles Perrault sixteenth century fairy tale begins "once upon a time" in a modern day sleep disorder clinic. The time is nine hundred years after a vengeful fairy, who was not invited to the christening of a fairy tale kingdom baby princess, exacted revenge by plunging the princess into a deep sleep on her sixteenth birthday.

Four patients, who also serve as a vocal chorus, will be sleeping in overnight as part of their treatment for a variety of sleep disorders. The clinic is presided over by a delightfully stereotypical sassy black female doctor ("you've come to an underfunded clinic in a mediocre hospital, under the care of a doctor who openly prefers research with field mice, but must settle for direct patient care as, for some reason, her grants keep getting rejected"). The doctor is assisted by a sweet, dedicated orderly who himself suffers from narcolepsy.

A mature man intrudes carrying a sleeping adolescent girl, his daughter, in his arms. Although doctors have told him that she is "gone" and her movements are involuntary, the man "knows" that his daughter dreams and that now, as she does every hundred years or so, she has entered a period of more fitful sleep during which he believes she can be reached and awakened.

There is much to recommend about this Sleeping Beauty. This hard rock inflected musical, which features a considerable range of modern pop music, could become a well loved and widely produced version of the classic tale, joining the 1890 Petipa-Tchaikovsky Russian ballet and 1959 Walt Disney animated feature as one of its best known updates. Elements of both the classic fairy tale and this modern updating of the story are omnipresent and remarkably well integrated in Rachel Sheinkin's clever and imaginative book. Although Sleeping Beauty Wakes is appropriate for family audiences, a modern, adult sensibility underlines the twists and turns which intelligently drive most of its second act.

Even as it now stands, Sleeping Beauty Wakes is a most intelligent and entertaining musical which is well worth a destination trip to Princeton. However, it would be a shame if the creative team rested on their laurels. There are aspects of this musical and production which are in need of reappraisal and revision if Sleeping Beauty Wakes is to fulfill its full potential.

The central problem is the concept and execution of the role of the sleeping Rose. Remember that Rose has been asleep for hundreds upon hundreds of years and is a fairy tale princess. Therefore, the strident singing of hard driving rock power ballads is not a good fit for her. Youthful rebelliousness and feminist anger is not appropriate for Rose or her situation when she sings "I Feel So Fine" and "For My Own Good" in the first act. The latter begins: "Whatever I like you take away/ You drag me back from where I go/ You never listen to what I say/ Whatever I want the answer's always no/ For my own good."

Before the song is completed, there are four or five such kvetches, each angrily concluding "For my own good".

Maybe a variation of the above lyric would fly in act two, when her father, the King, continues to try to keep her from her Prince Charming, but it is too big a stretch when she is still in the world of dreams.

Although Aspen Vincent has a strong voice, the harshness of her singing and performance suggest a Janis Joplin concert more than (even 2011) musical theatre. Bryce Ryness as her offbeat prince, the orderly Mike, is a more mellifluous singer. Ryness throughout the evening demonstrates that he has charm and stage presence to spare. Kecia Lewis-Evans, in both her roles as the doctor and the vengeful fairy, pleases the ear with the smooth richness of her deep and powerful voice. This is even so during her most malevolent vocal ("Uninvited", a close cousin of Vincent's "For My Own Good"). Lewis-Evans is also delightfully funny.

Bob Stillman brings a weary and poignant dignity to the King whose sole interest is the well being of his daughter. Adinah Alexander, Jimmy Ray Bennett, Steve Judkins and Donna Vivino imbue each of the sleep disorder patients that they play with specific, quirky personalities. They all handle their musical chores with professional Úlan.

When Sleeping Beauty Wakes eventually takes off, director Rebecca Taichman clearly has everything well in hand. However, the four actors portraying the patients play the early part of the first act in beds which are as far upstage as the set allows, creating an enervating gap between the actors and the audience. There can be no acceptable reason for not bringing those beds downstage. This staging, combined with Riccardo Hernandez's spare and unattractive steel gray set as lit with Christopher Akerlind's limited spectrum purplish lighting (the set and lighting will have more to offer later) put me in mind of a sere chamber musical.

While I could do without the inappropriate or inappropriately placed power rock ballads, Brendan Milburn has provided an attractive, varied score which includes more introspective melodies, lively charm songs, comedy songs, and even doo-wop. Valerie Vigoda's lyrics are effective theatrically, conveying plot and emotion smoothly and literately.

At its best, which it is for most of the second act, Sleeping Beauty Wakes is a delightful entertainment for the head and the heart.

Sleeping Beauty Wakes continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday 7:30 pm/ Saturday & Sunday 8 pm/ Matinees Saturday 3 pm and Sunday 2 pm) through June 5, 2011 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mcarter.org.

Sleeping Beauty Wakes book by Rachel Sheinkin; music by Brendan Milburn; lyrics by Valerie Vigoda; directed by Rebecca Taichman

Patients:
Murray......................Steve Judkins
Hadara................Adinah Alexander
Leon.................Jimmy Ray Bennett
Cheryl........................Donna Vivino

Staff
Orderly......................Bryce Ryness
Doctor................Kecia Lewis-Evans

Arrivals
King.............................Bob Stillman
Beauty......................Aspen Vincent


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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