Monday, May 16, 2011

Your Kids will Love Narnia

by Matthew Falduto

Cedar Rapids - Well, my kids loved it.

Friday night, my wife and I took our three daughters, ages 10, 7 and nearly 4 to see Theatre Cedar Rapids' production of the C.S. Lewis classic novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Quick synopsis: four children, two brothers and two sisters, travel through a magic wardrobe into the land of Narnia. There Peter, Susan, Edmund and little Lucy discover they are part of a prophecy that may end the terrible Narnian winter and the reign of the White Witch. They race to find Aslan, the great lion who leads all of the good creatures against the Witch. It's a story of magic, of sacrifice, and most importantly a story of good versus evil.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a book that has had a profound impact on generations of children worldwide. I read the book when I was in 5th grade and it was one that set me on a path of imagination and creativity that sustains me to this day. So perhaps no stage version of this story could ever live up to the memories of such a book. And that's probably okay. Because, hey, my kids loved it.

Rachel, my oldest, quickly noted the cool set that appeared to have a trap door, multiple levels, and pieces of scenery attached to the fly system. As the show progressed, we saw the impressive set in action, as parts of it revolved and the iconic lamppost, which was very cleverly updated for modern times with a geometric design, was lowered and raised to tell us when we were in Narnia and when we were in our world.

One of the best parts of the production was the way in which director Jason Alberty incorporated dance into the show. He cast five girls to portray wood nymphs who danced prettily during the scene changes, adding to the magic feel of the show. Samantha and Piper, my two younger daughters, absolutely loved the dancing nymphs. There is also an extended dance toward the end of the show involving the White Stag. All of the dances were very well choreographed by Carol Maxwell Rezabek.

A few of the performers really stood out. The character of Lucy, played by fifth grader Gracie Shulte, really captured the stage every time we were fortunate enough to see her. She was particularly good in the most heart wrenching scene of the show when Susan (Autumn Arnold) and Lucy react to the death of Aslan. This scene was staged very well. As a parent, I appreciated that the murder of Aslan took place out of view of the audience. And through the excellent acting of Schulte and Arnold, we felt the full impact of his death without having to see Aslan's body.

Speaking of the lion, Nicholas Lane Walters is excellent in this crucial role, making it clear "he is not a tame lion." Walters glides onto stage with the mesmerizing mix of confidence, power and benevolence necessary for that character. Aslan's opposite number, the White Witch, is ably played by Marty Norton. She is simply delightfully evil.

I must mention the costume design by Joni Sackett. Behind me I heard a fellow patron opine that the White Witch's costume seemed a little "Lady Gaga"; I enjoyed the cold starkness of the ensemble. Aslan's costume was just perfectly designed to create the lion without losing the actor. I enjoyed Fenris Ulf's military costume, though my daughters had no idea he was supposed to be a wolf. All of the costumes, from the Beavers to the Fox to the Leopard, were wonderfully creative and added much to the magic of the evening.

There are a few elements that I felt didn't work well. First, the land of Narnia is supposed to be winter all of the time. The set did not portray that well at all. As the story progresses, the snow melts and the green of spring appears. None of that was evident in this story aside from one throwaway line about how the children left their winter coats behind and never noticed.

There were also moments of humor that, while much enjoyed by the audience, seemed to undermine the evilness of the White Witch. Some of the humor worked really well (who saw the Zac Efron reference coming?) and Director Alberty certainly knows how to extract the humor from any moment of a show. However, the White Witch scenes were moments to pull back the humorous reins and allow the utter evil of the witch shine through.

Lastly, in the final battle, I think the actors needed stronger direction or more practice for this scene. (I am fairly certain I saw the White Witch hand Edmund her magic staff.) The battle could have been staged so we knew what action we were supposed to be following at any particular time. There are important moments during the fight, but we never knew what we were supposed to be focused on and consequently could not follow the drama of the battle. No one is credited with fight choreography in the program; the next time they produce a show with stage combat I hope TCR doesn't overlook this very important design element.

Still, do not let those criticisms dissuade you from experiencing this show. While I admit to enjoying the book a whole lot more, this production is a wonderful magical romp through a land of good and evil, and of course, good triumphs in the end. Your kids will love it. Mine certainly did.

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