BWW Review: THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL at THEATRE DE LA RENAISSANCE
Creating a kids' musical based on a tale of the death of a little girl in appalling circumstances is making a risky bet, but in the case of The LittleMatch Girl at the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris, a successful one. The book, by Anthony Michineau, is a small masterpiece of poetry and imagination. Without betraying Hans Christian Andersen's original tale, Michineau has transformed the story into a fantasy fable, where thelittle match girl, Emma, goes on a quest to save an imaginary kingdom.
In the Danish author's original, matchsticks were used to make a contrast between misery and opulence. The matchsticks in the musical serve as a magical means of transportation to a world where Emma's grandmother is queen of the Imaginary Kingdom, which is in danger when Emma arrives. A big meany, Fragotov, has gained influence there by sucking out the souls of children, and he lacks only Emma's to take full control of the kingdom.
Children and parents alike were dazzled by the decors and lighting, both at the service of clever staging. Jackie Tadéoni and David Kawena's costumes, which nicely tie the visually brilliant feast together, are outstanding.
The show begins with an arresting scene, where the young heroine is being tormented by the director and fellow orphans of the orphanage she lives in. The kids in the theater seemed put off and didn't seem to loosen up until we got to the Imaginary Kingdom, eventually really getting into the first colorful and joyful scene when Emma is welcomed as a princess in her grandmother's kingdom.
Various eccentric characters appear, including the clairvoyant Madame Olga, played by an unrecognizable and hilarious Gaëlle Gauthier (Mamma Mia!, The New Adventures of Robin Hood) . Her strong Slavic accent was sometimes difficult to understand, but it wasn't too embarrassing. There's a monster Monstro Falco, played by Nicolas Soulié, who ends up being more of a teddy bear than scary monster. Alexandre Faitrouni (Grease, 31) adds a touch of sweetness and Angélique Magnan (The Wizard of Oz, La Boule Rouge) adds a big dose of class as the queen. Emma is played by the talented Lilly Caruso, convincing as the brave little girl.
The book may not be easy to follow for the smallest viewers, and the play starts out at too slow of a pace hold to hold their interest . Also, in the first part of the show, the characters tend to shout a lot, which isn't called for by the action of the story. Many a kids' musical fall into this trap; yelling is used to artificially jolt small audience members attention.
But the attention of the spectators, kids and parents alike, is indeed captured when the Emma's quest begins, which is to say when Emma decides to confront the cruel Fragotov. The incredibly poetic final scene, which has Emma falling asleep permanently to join the Imaginary Kingdom as princess next to her grandmother, is a moment of pure grace. Don't forget your tissues. You'll need them as you watch the Emma's soul contemplating her lifeless body before traveling to the Imaginary Kingdom.
The songs by Ludovic-Alexandre Vidal (lyrics) and Julien Salvia (music) - whose The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, currently in its second season at the Théâtre Mogador, won multiple awards at the French Trophées de la Comédie Musicale - are as usual impeccable, pleasantly orchestrated by Shay Alon (Oliver Twist). This duo's great talent is in the way their songs distill the journey between different universes, from the joyful energy of "C'est ça d'être un bon pirate !" ("That's What a Good Pirate Is!") to the sublime tenderness of "Il est l'heure de dormir" ("Time to Sleep").
As is often the case, the use of a soundtrack takes away from the music. Maybe that's why we don't come out of the performance humming the melodies in our head, as with other musicals. Fortunately, listening to the CD of the show in the serenity of your home allows you a much deeper appreciation of the songs.
But the overall quality of the production at the Théâtre de la Renaissance strongly suggests that the original version's nominations at the French theater awards, Les Molières, in 2016 were not undeserved. The musical offers different levels of interpretation that will please audience members of all ages, although sensitive children should be closely watched during the performance and may have a lot of questions afterwards. The Little Match Girl is a show not to be missed, achieving a level of greatness for a kids' musical rarely reached in France. Again, don't forget tissues.