Snow Child at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater seems like the potential little sister to 2015’s breakout smash Dear Evan Hansen, destined to take wing from the boards of DC direct to the bright lights of Broadway.
Under the sure direction of Molly Smith, herself an Alaskan native, the world premiere musical is haunting and engaging and not to be missed. Snow Child is a collaborative effort between Arena Stage and Perseverance Theatre, the Juneau theater company Smith co-founded and led as Artistic Director for almost twenty years. The production is the fifth in Arena’s “Power Play” series, an ambitious arc of 25 new plays, each focusing on a decade of American history between 1770 and today.
The story is based on Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel The Snow Child, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, reimagined as a musical featuring a book adapted by John Strand, and music and lyrics by Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt. The music is the star of Snow Child’s, a lilting score that combines Alaskan string-band traditions with contemporary musical theater. Music Director William Yanesh conducts a musical homage to America’s rogue state with a harmony of mandolin, banjo, guitar, upright bass, fiddle, keyboard and traditional Alaskan moose jaw, a percussion instrument made from…wait for it…a moose jaw. Todd Rosenthal’s stage is simple and bare bones, as reduced to the basics as life on the frontier. It’s brought to life by the outstanding cast, Projection Designer Shawn Duan,Lighting Director Kimberly Purtell, and enchanting puppetry directed by Eric Wright. Puppetry, in my opinion often the Achilles heel of theater, shines and engages here as able puppeteers (Dorothy James, David Landstrom, Calvin McCullough) animate the Alaskan wildlife beautifully designed by Emily Decola.
Reeling from the loss of an unborn child, Mabel (Christiane Noll) and Jack (Matt Bogart) have buried themselves in the remote cold of the 1920s Alaskan wilderness to numb the pain. The couple struggle to rebuild their lives even as fissures test their marriage, and the long dark days test their souls. When Mabel encounters the wild, mysterious Faina (played by the outstanding and only twelve-year-old Fina Strazza) in the desolate woods that surround their cabin, neither you nor she knows if the girl is real, mystical, or imagined. Did a snowman and wish bring the child to them? Has Mabel’s sorrow and isolation conjured a ghost? In the beautiful and violent wilds of untamed Alaska, anything is possible. When tragedy tests them to the limits of their endurance, Mabel and Jack will learn that with them, too, anything can be. The story requires some suspension of disbelief (Radical character evolution in a snap! Sing abut the frigid cold then walk around outside in a flannel! Recover from a life-threatening injury after a long, long nap!), but overall the production is emotional, beautiful, and unique. You’ll enjoy your journey back to the wild frontier.
Snow Child is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater Kreeger Theater through May 20, 2018 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024) Running time: two hours and ten minutes minutes, with one fifteen minute intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.
*Images credit Maria Baranova