Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea
San Diego Repertory Theatre

Josh Tower and Sabrina Sloan
Like an old Victrola that hasn't been sufficiently cranked, San Diego Repertory Theatre's world premiere production of The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea starts almost in slow motion.  By the time the cranking is finished, however, a joyful sound has emerged.

Writer Kirsten Childs has relocated Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea, to Africa, where Princess Quelie of Kheba (Sabrina Sloan) is rebelling against her father's plans for her betrothal.  Quelie is much more interested in representing Kheba in an upcoming dance contest in the kingdom of Torel than she is in marriage.  Meanwhile, Quelie's jealous cousin, Hena (Jennifer Leigh Warren), plots to get Quelie into trouble so that she can take her place and marry the prince.  Hena persuades Quelie to sneak off to the dance contest without her father's permission, but when the two arrive in Torel, Quelie literally bumps into Prince Gallant (Josh Tower).  Gallant's domineering mother (Lillias White) is holding a contest to determine which of his many potential brides is "blue-blooded" enough to marry her son.  Gallant, however, is much more interested in science than he is in marriage, though it's definitely love at first sight when he's bumped by Quelie.  Naturally, Hena is still around, trying to push Quelie aside, but Gallant, too, has a cousin, Rolin (Tonéx), who manages to be in the vicinity of wherever Hena lands.

The music by Andrew Chukerman with lyrics by Karole Foreman, Mr. Chukerman, and Ms. Childs also has difficulty getting cranked up.  While it tends to service the plot in the early going, there are too many songs that bog things down instead of moving them along.  Once we're in Torel, however, the tone shifts to gospel rock, and things really take off.  Most of the main characters get a feature number in the second half, and suddenly the plot becomes secondary to some fine singing of some very tuneful songs.  Director Stafford Arima seems to be at a loss to keep things moving at the beginning as well, but his pacing and the cast's ability to change scenes fluidly improves as the exposition dissipates.

An Edgerton Foundation award from the Theatre Communications Group has provided the Rep with the capacity to do a much higher level of production than would otherwise have been possible (producer Chris Bensinger is also involved).  Ms. Sloan may have been an American Idol finalist, but she is also a graduate of Northwestern and played in the original Broadway cast of Hairspray.  As Princess Quelie, she displays a fine voice and capable acting chops, but she doesn't move as if she's the expert dancer that the story demands her to be. As a result, the climactic dance contest number proves to be the low point of Todd L. Underwood's otherwise interesting and energetic choreography.  Mr. Tower has just come off of five years of playing Simba in the Broadway production of The Lion King, and he and Ms. Sloan make an attractive couple.  Ms. White, a Tony winner for her featured role in The Life, also gets bogged down the early going but comes to life in her scenes with Ken Prymus (as her husband, King Kemo) and blows the roof off of her second act number, "My Only Son."  Ms. Warren manages to play the villain of the piece as more of a misguided schemer than anything else, and that works—she takes home the acting honors.  Gospel rock star Tonéx is given little to do other than hang around Ms. Warren, and his big feature number, "Partay," comes late in the show.  Someone of this artist's vocal talent needs a second feature number.  Sylvia MacCalla, Angela Wildflower Park and Angela Teek provide more than one sassy turn as a trio of princess hopefuls.

The problems with the early part of the show could be fixed.  The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea currently runs about 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission, and 10-15 minutes could be trimmed from act one so the story gets from Kheba to Torel more quickly.  Tonéx's character can be given an earlier song so that he doesn't always look as though he's standing around waiting to sing.  The stage direction can tighten up and become more creative.

There is one problem that will remain no matter what fixes are made, though, and that problem is that The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea shares the same source material with another well-known musical, Once Upon a Mattress.  Even though that cousin is nearly 50 years older, it still delights with its quick wit and lively songs.  The newer version, while rife with its own charms (it is pure genius, for example, to portray an attractive young hero as being great at science), is going to have a tough time competing with the memory of a young Carol Burnett singing Shy."

San Diego Repertory Theatre, by special arrangement with Chris Bensinger, presents the world premiere of The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea.  Book by Kirsten Childs, Music by Andrew Chukerman, Lyrics by Karole Foreman and Andrew Chukerman, Additional Lyrics by Kirsten Childs, Conceived by Karole Foreman.  Directed by Stafford Arima, Music Director and Conductor Jim Vukovich, Set Design by Beowulf Boritt, Lighting Design by Jennifer Setlow, Choreographer Todd L. Underwood, Costume Design by Jennifer Brawn Gittings, Wig Design by Missy Bradstreet, Sound Design by Tom Jones.

With Randy Aaron, Brooke Aston, P. L. Brown, Loren Sharice Lott, Sylvia MacCalla, Warren G. Nolan, Jr., Angela Wildflower Polk, Kalif Price, Ken Prymus, Sabrina Sloan, Angela Teek, Tonéx, Josh Tower, Jennifer Leigh Warren, and Lillias White.

Performances through December 21 at San Diego's Lyceum Theatre on Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays thru Saturday evenings at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm; Sunday matinees at 2pm; and one Saturday 2pm matinee.  Tickets can be purchased at the Rep's box office, 79 Horton Plaza in San Diego, by calling (619) 544-1000 or online at the San Diego Rep website.  

See the current theatre season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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