Thematically, The Snow Queen is a conventional fable about growing up, but it also suggests that maturity does not mean you have to do without a heartfelt childishness.
The Snow Queen. Book by Kirsten Brandt and Rick Lombardo. Music by Haddon Kime. Lyrics by Kirsten Brandt, Rick Lombardo, and Haddon Kime. Directed and Choreographed by Rick Lombardo. Presented by The New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, MA, through December 20.
By Jess Viator
The Snow Queen is a pop/rock musical based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name. New Rep’s musical closely follows the plot of the Anderson fairy tale; it is a coming-of-age story that follows Gerda and Kai, who are best friends. One day, Kai is corrupted by the shattered shards from an evil mirror; the shard in his eye makes it so he can only see ugliness in the world, and the shard in his heart freezes his heart to ice. The Snow Queen visits Kai and enchants him; he runs away to be with her and, because of magic of the mirror pieces, he forgets about his home and loved ones. Gerda then embarks on a grueling journey to find Kai and bring him home.
Thematically, the story is a conventional fable about growing up, but it also suggests that maturity does not mean you have to do without a heartfelt childishness. As Gerda, Victoria Britt radiates innocence and youthful delight at the world around her. Drawing on her crystal clear singing and tenacious energy, the actor convinces us that it is is worth our while to accompany her on this dubious adventure.
The catch is that, even for Bitt, keeping the audience engaged from scene to scene turns out to be a struggle. The play moves along at a sluggish pace; this fairy tale takes over two hours to tell, and the staging has its longueurs. The set, essentially an artistically constructed piece of scaffolding, is bare bones to the point that it detaches the actors from the audience. The performance space feels and looks cavernous; when up on the high platforms, the actors seem to be miles away.
Throughout her journey, Gerda meets an array of colorful, over-the-top characters: some are a whole lot of fun to watch, others fall flat. The scene with the Garden Witch works beautifully. She is a vibrant character with a compelling storyline—the woman beguiles Gerda into believing the witch is her mother—and the role is acted with both exuberance and nuance. They sing a moving duet while the witch lovingly steals Gerda’s memories; Maureen Keiller’s performance manages to be somehow touching and disturbing at the same time.
In terms of narrative momentum, the uninspired figures end up as being irritating clutter. Each of these characters has his or her own vignette with a complete story arc; the episodes do not always build off of one another. Worse, they only tangentially advance Gerda’s expedition to find Kai. After the first act, the constant introduction of new, two-dimensional characters (and obstacles for the sake of creating more obstacles) becomes tiresome, to the point that the final confrontation with the Snow Queen is rendered somewhat anticlimactic. That said, one of the best scenes in The Snow Queen pops up near the end of the play. Jackie Theoharis, fully committed to the role of the punk-rock Robber Girl, is delightfully chaotic, to the point of becoming more than a little terrifying. At this point, we were given a badly needed shaking up—perfect time for a powerful wrap-up. But we still had multiple scenes and characters to go.
And once we reach the Snow Queen she is a bit of a fizzle. Although she is absent at the end of the Anderson story, the stage adaptation needed to include the Snow Queen. This is the good vs. evil showdown we have been waiting for! But the show’s creators were reluctant to let the monarch be their version of “Maleficent.” The difficulty is somewhat understandable; in the original story the Snow Queen is more otherworldly and aloof than she is evil And yet she enslaves a boy with her magical kiss and and then uses this frenzied child’s devotion to her to further her own selfish machinations. Inexplicably, the Snow Queen doesn’t do anything here; she simply stands and watches while Gerda saves the day. She has a few half-hearted lines, and only the tiniest moment of redemption, so quick that if you blink you will miss it. Aimee Doherty, who plays the Snow Queen, has a number of songs: she performs them while standing up on the scaffolding or atop the staircase. She looks beautiful and that is about it.
There is great deal of music in this show—in fact, most of the story is told through the production’s charming musical numbers. The problem is that the volume balance between the band and the singing actors was way off during the performance I attended. I frequently had difficulty hearing the lyrics, and this left me somewhat lost at times.
The Victorian aesthetic of the show is stunning and Frances Nelson McSherry’s steampunk costumes are glorious—these duds are sure to inspire awe and longing in the tween girl set. I tried to watch this performance while tapping into the child-like spirit in my own heart; the 8-to-12-year-old-me would have admired and rooted for Gerda, would have been heartbroken by mean-spirited Kai, and would have thought the live rock band and the eclectic music was really cool.
But this 8-to-12-year-old me would also have been bored by some of the in-between bits, and frustrated with the Snow Queen’s lack of ferocity. And she would not have been as nearly impressed with the 20-foot-tall, rolling staircase as the show’s creators (including former New Rep Artistic Director Rick Lombardo, who was at the helm) expected her to be. Given the talent involved, The Snow Queen should have kindled an inspirational blaze, but the show did not warm my heart—it just left me cold.
Jess Viator is an emerging independent theater director, an occasional stage manager, and a lapsed playwright. She has a BA in theater performance, and recently completed a master’s degree in theatre studies from the University of Dundee in Scotland.