Tuesday, October 28, 2014

theatre review NARNIA - Valley Youth Theatre, October 12

Owen Watson and Sarah Pansing
Like many other famous works of literature, C.S. Lewis' classic children's book series "The Chronicles of Narnia" has been adapted into just about every form of entertainment possible. Valley Youth Theatre is presenting a full-length musical version of the first book in the series, called Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with a talented group of child actors and singers, excellent costumes, and skilled direction that effectively guides the large young cast in delivering the themes and messages of Lewis' novel of courage, faith and the triumph of good over evil.

The story begins as four children are sent to an English countryside mansion to avoid the Nazi bombing of London during World War II. The youngest of the children, Lucy, finds a wardrobe in the house that is a secret passageway into a magical world called Narnia. There she encounters many talking creatures and animals as well as the evil White Witch who is determined to put an end to Aslan, the lion, who is the reigning King of Narnia. Lucy convinces her siblings to journey to Narnia with her, and together they help Aslan in his battle against the evil Witch.

Only slightly abridged from Lewis' novel, this adaptation was written by Jules Tasca with music by Thomas Tierney and lyrics by Ted Drachman. The book is fairly faithful, touching upon all of the major moments in the novel and, while the musical score isn't entirely memorable, it does feature several impressive numbers including one in the second act, "Deep Magic," that is a knock-out.

Director Bobb Cooper has found a talented cast more than capable of portraying the multiple characters in the story. Makenna Jacobs, Alex Kirby, Andy Wissink and Owen Watson bring to life the wonder that the four children (Lucy, Susan, Peter and Edmund) discover once they enter Narnia, with Watson especially effective as the at first sour-faced Edmund who finds himself relishing the promise of power and the title of Prince he may achieve as he falls under the spell of the White Witch. All four are featured in several songs and possess pleasing voices, with Watson delivering some rich vocals in his numbers.

As the leaders of good and evil, Sarah Pansing is effective as the White Witch, with an appropriate sense of strength and wickedness beneath her charming exterior, though she isn't as devilishly evil as she could be, which actually works for a show with so many young children in the audience. Pansing is a powerhouse singer, providing her numbers with rich, strong vocals from the jazzy "Hot and Bothered" to the showstopping "Deep Magic" which she shares with the entire cast. Pansing is giving a most impressive performance and has a great future ahead of her. Brandon Reyes' portrayal of Aslan is appropriately graceful and gentle, though the adaptation doesn't really give him a chance to show the strength that Aslan has. Reyes also does quite well in showing Aslan's sweet, caring side in several scenes and songs including the moving act one ender "Cair Paravel" and his duet with Edmund, "From the Inside Out."

In the supporting cast, Sam Primack and Noa Gauthier are hilarious as the constantly bickering Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Their Cockney accents a humorous addition to the characters, Primack and Gauthier are natural comedians and I expect seeing them both in many professional shows in years to come. Billy Deihl and Vincent Pugliese round out the major parts, both achieving effective moments as the Professor/Father Christmas and Tumnus, the faun that Lucy meets in Narnia, respectively. Hep Witzel gets several solo moments to show off his impressive ballet skills as the White Stag.

Director Cooper is to be praised for not only effectively balancing the dramatic and comedic moments without letting the serious ones get too intense, but also in bringing out such accurate and realistic performances from his young cast. The fact they have all developed consistent English accents that they retain throughout the entire show is impressive. Choreographer Christine Merrow provides varied steps for the numerous music styles and does wonderful work in the larger numbers that require practically the entire cast to be on stage dancing. Music director Mark Fearey draws fine vocals from the actors and conductor Alexander Tom is skilled at achieving a full sound from the small orchestra and in directing the youngest, least experienced members to navigate through the songs seamlessly.

Creative touches are well done, especially Karol Cooper's elaborate costume designs that include a sleek lace gown for the White Witch and a rich coat with fur-lined lapels for Aslan, as well as a never ending stream of elaborate costumes for the numerous Narnia inhabitants. The make-up and wig designs are superb, with almost the entire cast's faces painted with clever effects, including humorous painted whiskers and teeth on the Beavers' faces, and ornate wigs that are quite impressive, particularly the one to depict Aslan's elaborate mane. While Dori Brown's set design is fairly basic, with just a simple set for the short scenes in the English mansion and a set of risers upstage for the Narnia sequence, her series of tree flats that seamlessly transform from winter to spring with just the inconspicuous change of Daniel Davisson's lighting design is terrific. Davisson also adds many evocative moments, especially to the numerous dramatic scenes.

Faithfully recreating the magical and mysterious land of Narnia with a vastly talented cast of young performers, Valley Youth Theatre's production of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is moving and imaginative while also being an inspiring and faithful adaptation of Lewis' original novel. A number of the talented actors and singers in the cast have bright futures ahead of them.

Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at Valley Youth Theatre runs through October 26th, 2014. The theatre is located at 525 North First Street in downtown Phoenix and ticket and performance information can be found at www.vyt.com or by calling 602 253-8188.

Photo: Barry Smith

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