Parents taking the family out for a night at the theater may have some idea that they are ushering their children into a magical land of wonder and imagination, distant from the hyperkinetic squawking of the television set. Some such parents may be surprised to discover that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—the musical production now being presented by the Children’s Theatre Company—rockets by with a frenetic glibness that makes an episode of Animaniacs look like My Dinner With Andre.
Though the play is based on the C.S. Lewis novel set in WWII-era England, the bad guys’ Nazi-inspired garb and Mr. Beaver’s liberal attitude towards underage drinking—he sloshes the young protagonists, steins in hand, through a boozy kickline—constitute the only onstage hints of a European locale. The four members of the multiracial Pevensie brood speak with American accents (as, in fact, do all the characters), and their literary counterparts’ somber discipline has been replaced with a caffeinated gusto: they romp into Narnia as though they were tumbling into a Moon Bounce.
They need all the energy they can get, because Adrian Mitchell’s adaptation has a lot of ground to cover among its frustratingly frequent pauses for Shaun Davey’s unhummable songs. (The background soundtrack is more effective, though daringly atonal elements in the White Witch’s entrance cue suggest that her aesthetic affinity with the musically conservative Hitler has its limits.) Given that nearly every plot development requires an exposition of Narnian cosmology to make any sense, it’s to Mitchell’s credit that the story holds together as well as it does. Magic? Deep magic? Deeper magic, from before the dawn of time? Check, check, and check.
The production recalls Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s 2007 staging of The Deception not just in its fever-pitch pacing and throat-hoarsening volume but also with its tall, square-paneled set. Visually, the show is a lot of fun: director Rebecca Lynn Brown gets great mileage out of a little dry ice, a few flashing lights, and a couple of judiciously deployed thunderclaps. Riccardo Hernánez’s set effectively slides, swirls, drops, and pops to convey the characters from one end of creation to the next; Anita Yavich’s costumes inventively evoke giants and wolves, but Julie Taymor should send her a bill for those lions.
The play’s climax involves a horrifically noble act of self-sacrifice, but this production has so little emotional gravity that the murder of the martyr feels like nothing more or less than an excuse for some stone-table voguing by the White Witch and her minions. (Autumn Ness, as the witch, has an appropriately wicked “Blue Steel” pout.) Ansa Akyea, whose complex performance was the heart of the History Theatre’s Kirby, here is consigned to playing Aslan as a jovial buddy rather than a tortured redeemer. When Peter Pevensie messily guts a sentient wolf and Aslan counsels him to, “whatever happens, never forget to wipe your sword,” the grinning Akyea sounds like a pitchman for Gillette.
But in all fairness, I’m not a member of the CTC’s target audience. At the performance I attended, the many young theatergoers were visibly enthralled. When Mr. Beaver, having hardly sobered up from his drinking song, launched into a tuneless paean to the absent Aslan, I leaned over to my seven-year-old guest and whispered, “I think that in my review, I’m going to say there’s too much singing.” She looked up at me and shook her head like I was crazy. Grownups today…we’re so hard to please.