While exciting and potentially a great collaborative exercise, producing a new work comes with a lot of pressures and expectations. Even when you’ve lined up the most fabulous of creative teams, breathing life into a previously unproduced piece is really, really, really hard work. That blank canvas can be a blessing. It can also be a curse. One cannot rest on their laurels when guiding a piece on its inaugural voyage and it is not uncommon for major changes to be made right up to and in some cases through the previews and even into the second weekend of the show. Those in the trenches must be flexible, thick-skinned, logical and try not to get their feelings hurt when their favorite parts are cut, modified or replaced. One might think that with no prior performances or interpretations or with no knowledge of the script you’d have it “easy” but, this is not the case. That liberty to shape and change and improve and experiment is, a real labor, one of love, but an especially difficult labor all the same.
I make a point of emphasizing this so that the scope of what an immense challenge a new work is (and a new musical in particular) is clear. Virgin works are rarely ever the perfect fairytale experience for the cast and crew, nor are they always a happy ending for the first audiences, but the work sometimes pays off big. And, sometimes it pays off later rather than sooner. San Jose Rep’s The Snow Queen certainly has my full attention. We NEED works like this to continue to be developed, they are essential, and there are a vast number of very positive, good things about this new musical. There are also a significant number of kinks that still need working out to make this, in my opinion, a GREAT show.
Visually, this show was engaging and imaginative, no question about it. There was some real technical magic going on which surpassed my expectations (super hard to do FYI). There are stage and lighting effects that will delight old and young alike, the way a fantasy tale should. Part of me liked the geometric, rustic (and extremely versatile and functional) scaffolding/platforms of the main set which worked well with the overall design and vision of the show. There was a small part of me (very small, but still present) that thought it was too minimal and wanted the set to more fully complement those magical moments.
Not unlike the Rep’s production of Spring Awakening, I found the use of projections to be a mixed bag, enhancing some scenes and supporting a dreamlike ambiance and contradictory, distracting and unnecessarily over the top in other places.
Somewhat random (and it could just be me) I found the lack of railings on the tops of the platforms and scaffolding to be unnerving and tremendously worrisome. I was taken out of the story, literally flinching in anticipation of witnessing an actor misstep or trip over a long gown, or get dizzy and plummet from their small high perch to certain injury.
The costuming, a kind of synthesis of steampunk and traditional “fairytale” with a dash of innovative urban fantasy was delightful. Maybe the most original and satisfying costuming I’ve seen this year. It’s entirely possible I may be far too partial to hats (you think?) but, I found the incorporation as well as the execution of millinery in this production to be totally, awesome. The metaphorical and plot essential uses of the hat as well as the sheer whimsy and beauty of all the head pieces were really excellent.
Aside from hats, the real highlight for me were the musicians who were, absolutely spectacular. Even more fantastic was the fact that many of them doubled as the acting ensemble, which I loved. Music and the form of music is key to this show and the integration of it thematically is fresh and different and really quite lovely in the places where it is polished.
The music that makes up this show is a variety of styles which was cool. We had serious and comical numbers performed in the style of indie folk, punk, Celtic, blues and ballads in addition to some strong homages to Broadway’s Spring Awakening, Once and Into the Woods. Where it worked, it really worked, but there were definitely songs I would have trimmed or cut completely. That’s hard to say because the voices were on the whole really a pleasure to listen to. Take the Snow Queen for instance, her voice was fantastic and her violin skills bewitching, but her songs weren’t memorable (unlike several of the other songs which even I was humming afterwards.) I wanted to be enchanted by her, but her songs seemed to have little to do with her journey metaphorically or literally even. Within the notes and lyrics of her songs, which were the majority of her stage time and plot development, I didn’t see malicious evil, I didn’t see obsessive, I didn’t see misunderstood, Yin or Yang, I didn’t see her “point” and her songs didn’t move her “point” forward. I didn’t root for or against her, I didn’t know what to feel. The show has her namesake and I honestly don’t know what her deal really was?
But don’t get me wrong, there were some absolutely charming parts that came together perfectly in all ways. Physical caricatures and vocal choices were lovely overall and there’s no doubt in my mind this was the right CAST to execute on the material. The acting, costumes and dialogue between the “flowers” in particular captured the humor and variety that I hope can eventually be captured by the entire piece. Aurora Borealis was a lovely song and aside from an extraneous list of the colors in one verse, I thought it was really tight and well performed; a hushed lullaby and a stage spectacle simultaneously. Spot on!
As a whole, while some places of the book and music felt layered and rich others seemed really disconnected and out of left field. There were parts that were repetitive and unpolished and didn’t seem important and then there were places where important information seemed to be missing and themes or motif could have been used far more for enhanced depth and meaning. Maybe a case of a tad too much of the stuff we “don’t” want/need and not quite enough of the stuff we “do” like/need. Maybe that disconnect was the result of items that had been cut and then references to the original deleted or altered bits left in? I’m not sure but it made it a bit of work to follow. An abrupt ending with very little sense of justice, relief or closure felt totally anticlimactic to say the least.
While I know the fairytale was written in a different time when the moral of the story may not be totally aligned with modern thinking, there were enough liberties taken with the story and words that I feel it could have been further edited and updated to make a more cohesive and modern piece without losing any of the heat and soul on the source story. Below in my untraditional “SPOILER SECTION” I mention some specifics that I can’t go into detail without corrupting the minds of those yet to see this but, suffice to say there were things that struck me as very odd and possibly unintentional with regard to this “moral of the story.” My takeaway was somewhat negative with regard to what was being alluded to through this production. Totally fixable by the way, I think if addressed.
While I don’t consider the performance I saw of The Snow Queen to be an instant classic, while it didn’t place me under any spell, I certainly appreciated it and left hoping it would continue to expand on the glimpses of really high-caliber enchantment I did see. With the potential to be a 5, I still need to rank this work-in-progress a 3 1/2 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a show that is aesthetically entertaining, certainly a much appreciated alternative to the usual traditional winter holiday shows, and has a tremendous amount of potential to be beyond fabulous with some more blood, sweat and snow…I mean tears. The Snow Queen plays through December 22nd at the San Jose Rep in Downtown San Jose.
SPOILER/POTENTIAL SPOILER REVIEW POINTS: DO NOT READ IF YOU DO NOT WANT PLOT POINTS TO BE REVEALED.
I normally do not do this, but I think it bears just mentioning some specifics with regard to messaging that I found personally confusing.
The relationship between the boy and the Snow Queen seemed really inappropriate to me. Much more predatory than “under a magic spell” or “puberty has set in and I have a crush.” Had the ages been more defined, had the children been played as 15 year olds instead of what seemed like 8-10 years old, maybe I wouldn’t have been so disturbed, but when the Snow Queen clearly keeps calling him BOY and then he begs for a passionate kiss on the mouth and she complies with no indication that this is a “magical” kiss….I don’t know, it definitely felt creepy to me. Maybe if a innocent burgeoning romance between a girl and a boy had been just hinted at instead of two kids playing together this wouldn’t have even been a blip on my radar.
I was also really taken aback by what seemed to me to be an unapologetic message of OCD and math is evil. The boy who all of a sudden likes order and numbers and CLEAN things and is solving a “problem” is bad and wrong and sick and that is what is really driven home, even more than he just doesn’t want to hang out with his friend and is even a bit mean to her. Additionally, a clever lyric the Queen has about H2O made an impression on me of chemistry also being in that realm of dark art.
The correlation between math and music is usually a good one, but I’m pretty sure that only “bad” characters or characters of questionable intent were the ones playing musical instruments. I suppose to avoid another “Math and Science are bad” scenario they could have given Gerda and/or her mother/grandmother or the flowers or the birds an opportunity to play as well so it didn’t appear to be so one-sided. We know the voice is a great instrument, but what if they could counter/duet/find strength and comfort with a flute/recorder, chimes, or perhaps a mandolin, something to give depth and more musical “prowess” and to level the playing ground?
And finally, I think my most shocked moment was during the robber scene. We have a girl/heroine who is being encouraged and praised to make her own path, be independent and essentially be the bigger person in one scene and then we find her stooping to the level of a thief and bullying her way out of a predicament unnecessarily with a knife in another! Very eye for an eye and in the context of the play she could have simply escaped, using her wits after freeing the reindeer. Standing up to oppressors is one thing, doing it with the same questionable practices as the oppressor I think is misguided. She wouldn’t have even needed to “steal” a blanket to keep her warm, she could have just grabbed her coat. Or the Reindeer fur could have kept her warm. I don’t see why there needed to be confrontation when the robber girl didn’t honestly learn from it. The lesson of independence and appropriate confrontation I think is marvelously displayed in the scene where she rejects being a princess or wear shoes or a hat (all things, by the way, that I feel obligated to point out are awesome, they obviously just aren’t for everyone. ;-))