One of my two complaints about children's theater is that it too often recycles the same old stories. So I was especially eager for the premiere of The Light Princess at the Arden Theatre Company. Tony Lawton and Alex Bechtel's new musical takes George MacDonald's 150-year-old story as its base; it does not disappoint, and often surprises.
MacDonald, a friend of Alice in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll, uses familiar devices to drive his story. Rob Tucker and Emily Gardner Xu Hall play a royal couple who didn't invite the Witch (Bechtel) to their daughter's christening. The Witch, jealous and sarcastic ("A throne? Who needs it? I'm much happier in my hovel in the swamp"), curses the child by depriving her of gravity -- both physical and emotional.
Played first by puppets and later by Brett Ashley Robinson, the Princess floats away unless tied down or holding a rock. She delights in sophomoric humor and pranks. Her existence is fun but hardly human, until an encounter with a passing Prince (Bechtel) and a nearby lake reveal that her curse is nullified by water.
When the Witch discovers the Princess's happiness, she devises another curse that deprives her of the lake, and compels a solution to that other lack of gravity: the Princess must learn empathy. The Light Princess veers into unusual territory for a kids' play when death becomes a possibility in what, up until now, has been a fanciful universe.
Director Steve Pacek's brisk, airy production boasts Nick Benacerraf's simple yet innovative set, which includes fluffy clouds, waves of water, and a piano on wheels, all colorfully lit by Oona Curley. Jillian Keys has designed playful costumes augmented by clever jackets, hats, and other pieces, especially on Lawton, who plays the narrator and many other small roles.
Lawton's theatrically self-aware script is fun and refreshing. Characters hear his narration, for example, and the royal parents humorously question it. Lawton and Bechtel's witty, upbeat songs advance the story well, and the actors play every instrument, giving The Light Princess a fluid storytelling economy. As expected, it results in a happy outcome and a wise moral that's earned, not pasted on. The Arden continues its fine tradition of a brief post-show discussion with the cast and then a lobby meet-and-greet, making The Light Princess a special experience for kids six and older.
My other children's theater complaint is that it too often isn't taken seriously. Happily, the Arden dedicates first-rate directors, designers, performers, and resources to its children's shows. The genre itself deserves a Best Overall Production Barrymore Award, so that it’s celebrated for its uniqueness, not crammed awkwardly into categories with "adult" productions.