The Snow Queen
The adventurous San Jose Repertory Theatre has taken on one of the more challenging theatrical disciplines, building the original musical, to largely positive effect in its world premiere of "The Snow Queen." Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "Snedronningen," it's a tale of the power of love and friendship dressed in a steam punk vibe and an eclectic rock and roll score.
Gerda and Kai are childhood friends and neighbors who tend to a shared garden and love to listen to stories told by Gerda's chatty grandmother. When the legend of the child-abducting Snow Queen proves true, Gerda sets out against seemingly impossible odds to rescue her best friend. Along the way she encounters a host of crazy characters who help or hinder her journey based on their own agendas.
The book by Kristen Brandt and SJ Rep Artistic Director Rick Lombardo is a happy splash of girl empowerment, where quick wit and faithful devotion overcome trolls, witches and other baddies. The original score offers music by Haddon Kime and lyrics by Brandt, Kime and Lombardo.
The show opens with the bouncy "Look Again," a scene setter sung by a troll about an evil mirror that distorts beauty and magnifies evil. It shatters high above the earth, spreading billions of sand-like fragments around the globe to infect the hearts and minds of innocent people like Kai. Another 30 songs and reprises follow on the ambitious score. Not every one lands solidly, but the Act I closer "Flying" and the Robber Girl's "I Want That", are two standout winners.
Eryn Murman plays the spunky Gerda with energy and conviction. There's a wonderful see-through-the-curtain earnestness to her characterization, even when enchanted by a witch or misled by a river. She's got a Mountie-like focus on rescuing her man, and won't be dissuaded by challenges that would halt less stalwart souls.
As Kai, Tim Homsley is wonderfully open and elastic, making nice contrasting choices between the bright-eyed boy of the start and the Queen's enchanted puppet-on-a-string later on the show. Not the most polished singer, he nonetheless brings an infectious exuberance to his performance that will win you over.
Broadway performer Jane Pfitsch brings a glorious, clarion voice and a mixed bag of acting to the role of the Snow Queen. She alternates between a classically regal and -- you'll pardon the pun -- icy stance, and then for no clear reason slips into a more modern mien, as if unclear of which tone she wants the character to play.
Except for Gerda, the Snow Queen and (sort of) Kai, the other seven members of the very talented ensemble must double and triple on the dozens of colorful characters needed to tell the tale including birds, flowers and snowflakes.
A standout is Jason Hite in his main featured character of the Old Crow. Hite is wonderfully wonky, blending a superbly engaging vocal performance with a marvelous physical expression of tough and devoted old bird.
With two delightfully different interpretations, Cindy Im plays a seemingly vacuous but ultimately knowing and generous Princess, who assists Gerda when she needs it most, and a wacky punk chick Robber Girl, with Wednesday Addams leanings who wants to keep Gerda as a pet.
Rhett George shines with a big voice and outsized personality as the Troll with a tale, followed by a charming Prince, and most particularly as the sweet, helpful Reindeer who literally carries Gerda on the most treacherous last leg of her journey.
Also in the ensemble are Lee Ann Payne running an amusing gamut from Grandmother to Robber Mother; Summer C. Latimer -- who makes a sweet sidekick to the Old Crow earlier in the show -- and Janice Engelgau has a nice spotlight moment as a couple of chatty pigeons, and joins with Jomar Martinez in other scenes.
The physical production by Erik Flatmo features a spare but very versatile set of ramps and staircases that can be endlessly reconfigured to create new playing spaces. It would be too bare bones were it not for some inventive accents like the sleeping chamber for the Prince and Princess, some very evocative lighting and projections by David Lee Cuthbert, and the effective use of snowfall and a rose petal shower.
Further visual interest is held by the extremely creative and colorful costumes by Frances Nelson McSherry, who has a great time with the steam punk style, and only misses the mark somewhat with the Snow Queen, who looks too Billie Burke "Glinda" instead of something more wicked.
The overall production is ambitious, inventive and frankly a little too long. Not every sequence needs a song. Disappointing sound design from Steve Schoenbeck that left a lot of lyrics undecipherable exacerbates this. Even so, there's a lot that's very, very good in this production and with some judicious edits it could become a welcome holiday season annual offering.
"The Snow Queen" runs through December 22 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio in San Jose. For information or tickets, call 408-367-7255 or visit http://www.sjrep.com