BWW Review: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE at Imagination Stage
Imagination Stage has revived their Helen Hayes Award-winning 2012 production of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe for the 2019 holiday season. With stunning sets and engaging musical elements, it's not hard to see why this production is a local favorite. The show takes a well-known tale and retells with the fun creativity of a children's production, but with the sensibilities that play to adults' nostalgia.
The show opens with an air raid in London. It's a stark opening that makes the stakes of the Pevensie children's lives - and Edmund's disobedience - very real. Notably, Imagination Stage's production never talks down or condescends to children, but instead opts for a straightforward, matter-of-fact tone in the face of war, and injects just enough whimsey into the overall performance to balance. The scene is not gory, but also refuses to hold back on making it clear that life in London is dangerous, setting the stage for the children to be sent to the countryside for safety, despite their objections. The country home they reside in is sparse, and overseen by a kindly professor and a strict housekeeper. The children play hide-and-seek, and it is while Lucy is hiding in the titular wardrobe that she is transported to the magical land of Narnia.
Narnia, in contrast to the previous scenes, is portrayed with vast, colorful sets and lighting, and snow falling onto the edge of the stage. The dichotomy is striking, and immediately helps set the tone for the audience and cast. Lucy is greeted by a faun, Tumnis, who takes her to his home and explains the terrors of the reign of the White Witch. Meanwhile, Edmund, who has followed Lucy, meets the White Witch herself, who plies him with Turkish Delight, and with a promise of more and a throne if he brings her his siblings; she reveals to the audience that there is a prophecy concerning the siblings, but keeps Edmund in the dark, relying on his own resentment toward his siblings to guide him to help her. To hide his intentions, Edmund initially lies to their older siblings, Susan and Peter, about Narnia, but eventually all four make their way to the fantasy world, where they learn more of the White Witch's stranglehold on Narnia and of the lion Aslan, the missing king.
Imagination Stage's production opts for a mix of straight acting, dance, and songs to convey this plot. The four main children - Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy - each have an actor and dancer pair playing them: the actors are Solomon Parker III, Katy Tabb, Ben Ribler, and Lauren Farnell; the dancers are Randy Snight, Sarah Laughland, Ryan Sellers, and Lexi Firestone, respectively. For the most part, the transitions between the acting cast and dancing cast are fun and seamless, but occasionally the decisions to have the dancers shadow the actors for full scenes left the stage feeling a little crowded. The dancers also doubled as additional cast members - Ms. Laughland's primary role was the White Witch, a role in which she took obvious pleasure. Firestone wowed as Santa's dancing elf, Sellers stalked the stage as Maugrim, the White Witch's wolf henchman, and Snight doubled as the faun Tumnus. This double-casting also meant that the main actors occasionally had to carry the dance aspect of their performance as well as acting and singing; Ms. Tabb, as Susan, was especially tasked with this, and was able to carry both aspects of the role effortlessly. Solomon Parker III's Peter was the perfect balance of bossy and caring older brother, and his interactions with Ribler's moody Edmund were incredibly believable. Farnell, as Lucy, shines as the de facto lead character with a sweet earnestness that endears her to both characters and the audience.
In addition to the children, there are a host of characters (the professor and housekeeper, the children's mother, the beavers) who float in and out of scenes - Patricia Hurley and Matthew Aldwin McGee play each role as it comes with a strong, fun competence, and it's entertaining to watch them slip into each respective character. McGee also acts as Aslan's voice, though the true spectacle of Aslan is the puppet itself, managed by Suzy Alden and Jay Frisby.
The puppet Aslan is one of the most stunning spectacles of this production, which is noteworthy given Eric Van Wyk's various puppets and set pieces. The wardrobe's transition from the countryside home to Narnia was also a standout moment in the show; even repeated, the change was enthralling to watch each time. Kristen P Ahern's costumes perfectly captured not only the time period, but each character's' personalities as well, and the beavers' tails were noticably well done. David Palmer's choreography was well-crafted, and helped tell the longer tales in a shorter time frame; the fact that the dances conveyed as much as the novel covered was impressive, and helped move the show along nicely.
It should be noted that Imagination's production is a slightly abridged version of the novel - for instance, Edmund journeys to Narnia during Lucy's first visit, not her second - which for the most part is quite effective. However, one side effect of this abridgement is that the Christian undertones of the novel (which, truthfully, went over my head as a child) are much more explicit. This does, however, also make it a decidedly "Christmas" show, but those who are bringing children with different backgrounds may want to be prepared to answer questions about some of these elements.
Overall, Imagination Stage's revival of their 2012 performance is as charming and well-produced as the original is remembered to be. The show is a great balance, appealing to both children and adults alike, and genuinely is an example of what good storytelling looks like.
Imagination Stage's The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe plays through January 5, 2020. Performance run time is approximately 90 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Information about tickets and special performances can be found on the Imagination Stage website.
Photos by Daniel Corey.