Sing out, Aslan! Narnia warbles a show tune

Mar 21

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The Pevensie children (from left), Peter (Andrew Humann), Susan (Alona Bach) and Lucy (Dakota Dry) join forces with Mrs. Beaver (Mary Gibboney) in Berkeley Playhouse’s musical version of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Below: The Pevensies get to know their Uncle Diggory (Anthony Rollins-Mullens). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

If your Narnia lacks magic, there’s a problem. C.S. Lewis’ contribution to the enchanted lands branch of children’s literature requires that the kingdom beyond the back wall of the musty old wardrobe demands magic.

The books in the Narnia series certainly do the trick of transporting readers to someplace beyond the page. The various film versions have been hit and miss with the enchantment. The most recent Disney versions are heavy on the CGI effects, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a magical spark.

Berkeley Playhouse, that bold company creating professional theater that appeals to family members of all ages, does a much more effective job locating that magic in its musical adaptation, Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The trick, it seems, was hiring director Jon Tracy, who has recently been spending a lot of time with Shotgun Players writing and directing his epic version of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Tracy is not a sentimentalist, and he’s a rigorous director. Both of those qualities serve this Narnia quite well. He’s marshalling a lot of forces here – professional adult actors, experienced child actors, child actors in training (part of Berkeley Playhouse’s educational internship), a band and a two-turntable set.

One or two of those elements might cow a weaker director, but Tracy cracks his whip – or let’s say, in this instance, waved his magic staff – and gets results.

Jules Tasca has streamlined Lewis’ book into a nearly 2 ½-hour experience that somehow finds time for nearly two dozen songs (music by Thomas Tierney and lyrics by Ted Drachman). Except in a few cases, the music is really the least interesting aspect of this show, and that’s nothing against music director Amy Dalton, who makes her crack seven-piece band sound like a much bigger orchestra.

No, what works here is what always works: story. We get sucked through that wardrobe right with the Pevensie children, and we end up caring how they fare when faced with fantastical creatures, sibling betrayal and blood-and-guts war.
It’s your basic good-vs.-evil set-up, with good represented by the children and their leader, Aslan the Christ-like Lion, and bad represented by the White Witch, whose crime is turning enemies into stone and making it always winter (and never Christmas).

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Tracy’s direction of the Pevensie children cuts the treacle by a good deal. Andrew Humann is especially good (and deadly serious) as eldest sibling Peter, and Alona Bach is just as good as the highly practical Susan. As troublesome Edmund, Alexander Franklin (alternating in the role with Will Reicher) is a believable lover of Turkish Delight and not much else. And young Dakota Dry (alternating with Maytal Bach) as Lucy is about as adorable and as heartfelt as she can be.

Of the adults, I was most captivated by Michael Barrett Austin as Mr. Tumnus, the faun. His lament, “Narnia (You Can’t Imagine),” is the song that comes closest to capturing the melancholy of Narnia under the reign of the White Witch.

Nina Ball’s scenic design makes excellent use of two turntables that allow set changes a bit of cinematic sweep (not to mention speed). It’s hard to create an epic feel on a smallish stage, but Ball and Tracy (who also designed the lights) do just that. The battle scenes (fight choreography by Dave Maier) are effective at conveying a sense of the fight without detailing the violence – a good solution for families with younger children.

Chelsea White’s costumes have a nice sense of whimsy, but her real achievement here is making Aslan (the strong-voiced Anthony Rollins-Mullens) as majestic as he needs to be. There’s a danger of making him look like a cross between Simba in The Lion King and the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, neither of which really works here. But her warrior-like headdress does just the trick.

Details like that are what makes this Narnia so sturdy and, ultimately, so effective. Director Tracy gets the details right and lets the story do the heavy lifting of making magic.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION
Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe continues through April 3 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $15-$33. Call 510-845-8542 or visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org for information.

One comment

  1. I love the pics!! :)

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