BWW Review: The Hauntingly Beautiful Musical SNOW CHILD Premieres at Arena Stage

BWW Review:  The Hauntingly Beautiful Musical SNOW CHILD Premieres at Arena Stage
(L to R) Dan Manning (George), Natalie Toro (Esther), Christiane Noll (Mabel) and Matt Bogart (Jack); by Maria Baranova

The fifth in a series of world premiere Power Plays at Arena Stage is perhaps the most unique yet - and certainly the most beautiful and mysterious. Based on Eown Ivey's novel, Snow Child brings a little bit of the heart and wonder of the gritty Alaskan territory in the 1920s to the Nation's Capital with excellent direction by Arena's Artistic Director Molly Smith.

Ms. Smith is certainly no stranger to what I would consider the most awe-inspiring part of this country (seriously, I didn't want to leave when I went there on vacation a few years ago). She grew up in Alaska and returned there in adulthood to start Perseverance Theatre (the producing partner for this production) on Douglas Island in Juneau. Her strong roots in the land - and clear affection for and understanding of it, its history, and its people - are probably one of the reasons this is one of her strongest musical directing outings I've witnessed.

She and her formidable cast of local and New York-based actors bring the best out of John Strand's book. A strong and varied score by Bob Banghart (Music) and Georgia Stitt (Music and Lyrics), and orchestrated by Lynne Shankel (also musical supervisor), nearly flawlessly brings us to the unforgiving land, albeit one with much promise and opportunity for those willing to put in the work. Each song, expertly played by William Yanesh's six-member orchestra, is used to explore the intense array of emotions and experiences the characters face whether it's a guitar or fiddle-based original folk song ("Grateful" and "To the Flames"), a well-structured and compelling musical theater ballad, or a fun patter number. They move the story along and - together with some stunning visual elements, including some fabulous puppetry - further establish the setting and reinforce a bit of the mysterious elements in Strand's book.

So, what are these mysterious elements?

Mabel (Christiane Noll) and Jack (Matt Bogart) have moved to the Alaskan Territory and set up a homestead. We learn, through their conversations, that they experienced unspeakable tragedy (the loss of a child) and were ready for a new start far away from the familiar East Coast. However, it's evident that maybe they weren't completely prepared for the challenges of living and farming in the new territory. While the setting is comparatively new, the grief is still quite heavy of a load to bear, especially (or at least more initially obvious) for Mabel. She often goes to the river to sketch and escape in her own thoughts. This time, she hears singing and the sound can't be coming from the raven in the sky. Shortly after returning to her worried husband, snow begins to fall for the first time that season. The couple builds a small snowman - a snow child - and Mabel adds a red hat and scarf. The scarf and hat disappear and the mysterious elements in the story really come to life.

A unique and strong young girl named Faina (Fina Strazza) appears to Mabel with her friend, the white fox (Dorothy James is the puppeteer). Mabel gets to know her and realizes it was Faina singing that day at the river. Initially, Jack thinks Mabel is just seeing things. Their more experienced neighboring homesteaders George (Dan Manning), Esther (Natalie Toro), and their son Garrett (Alex Alferov) already think the couple has taken on a more than they can handle, but they are even more concerned when Mabel starts discussing the child's appearance. When Jack shoots his first moose (with a little help from Faina, who is at one with nature), he begins to realize Faina doesn't just exist in Mabel's mind. The couple get to know Faina better, but - after discovering her sensitivity to warmth and reading the fairytale of the snow child - realize she can't fill the void forever, especially after the spring thaw.

Summer rolls around and Faina is gone, but Mabel has no time to wonder. Jack gets severely injured in a plowing accident. This leaves Mabel with two choices - learn how to be a farmer or starve - all while making sure her husband survives in the absence of professional help. Miraculously (with a little help from their neighbors) Mabel makes it work, gains confidence, and now sees herself as an equal partner to Jack. Much to the (slight) chagrin of their neighbors, they'll continue as homesteaders in the territory and not make a run for the comforts of home. Winter comes around again. Will Faina appear? Mabel and Jack continue with their lives armed with the important lessons they've learned, but one opportunistic attempt to upset the delicate balance of people and nature may have major consequences.

The cast is well-prepared to traverse the emotional rollercoaster of this story. The wonder, mystery, and imagination of the story stands in contrast to their grounded and very human performances. Both work in perfect harmony. Noll, in particular, is especially successful in making the audience feel every moment Mabel experiences - the highs and the lows. Her singing, as can be expected from anyone familiar with her work, is some of the best you can hear on stage these days no matter the style. Her technique is flawless and her tone is gorgeous, but she also intimately connects with every lyric from beginning to end so the performance is really something special. Bogart, likewise, navigates his character's own tumultuous emotional journey in a raw and realistic way in both the book scenes and musical numbers. He also demonstrates a good set of comedic chops in a fun number about hunting a moose ("Moosehunt Breakdown"). Noll and Bogart's easy and familiar rapport with one another ensures believability. It's clear they are husband and wife and have traveled a hard road together.

Natalie Toro has enough grit, strength, and comedic chops to make her character work really well. Even when she's less than supportive of Mabel, it's obvious that Esther has learned a lot in her time in the Alaskan territory and has embraced her role as a woman who managed to make it just as well as the men. This sense of equality is reinforced with her preferred fashion - jean overalls and boots (costume design is by Joseph P. Salasovich). Dan Manning (boasting some good guitar skills) is Toro's equal in every way. Like Noll and Bogart, they're very believable as a married pair.

Alex Alferov brings some considerable vocal chops to the role of Garrett. His character plays an important role in setting up a conflict that dominates a good portion of Act Two and he proves more than up to task as an actor. Lastly, Fina Strazza gives an incredibly enchanting and haunting performance thanks to her angelic voice and strong stage presence. Her physical acting skills are first rate. She can say more with one blink of an eye or facial expression than most actresses her age, which is an important skill given Faina - while one with nature - is not one with words. She evokes a sense of mystery with every move.

The puppeteers (Dorothy James, David Landstrom, and Calvin McCullough) expertly manipulate Emily DeCola's wonderfully intricate creations, including a plow horse that looks like it could be something out of War Horse. The puppetry, set design (Todd Rosenthal), snow effects, projections (Shawn Duan), sound design (Roc Lee), and lighting design (Kimberly Purtell) work together to create a unique and wondrous Alaskan environment to which the audience is transported.

While the musical is not quite perfect - there are some unresolved plot points (not to be spoiled here) in Strand's book and maybe slightly too much music (beautiful as it is) - it's the strongest one I've seen this season in the DC area. I hope it has a future life beyond the production in Juneau later this year. It deserves it.

Running Time: Two hours and five minutes, including one intermission.

SNOW CHILD plays Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater - 1101 6th Street, SW in Washington, DC - through May 20, 2018. For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or purchase them online.

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