Imagination Stage in Bethesda, MD has embarked on a new adventure with its current production of C.S. Lewis' beloved tale, The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe. In collaboration with The Washington Ballet, it has succeeded in putting forth a theatrical revelation- a production that's not a ballet, a musical, or a straight play, but something in between. Although Imagination Stage is generally very much geared towards children, theatre and dance-loving adults are likely to be enamored with this piece, including those who come to the theatre without children! Put succinctly, this is an astounding work of art.
Based on a concept by Kathryn Chase Bryer (Dramaturg/Associate Artistic Director of Imagination Stage), David Palmer (Co-Choreographer/Associate Artistic Director, The Washington Ballet), Janet Stanford (Director/Librettist/Lyricist/Artistic Director of Imagination Stage), and Septime Webre (Co-Choreographer/Artistic Director, The Washington Ballet), the theater piece brings to life C.S. Lewis' story about four young children who escape impending conflict in 1940s London by going to the English countryside. In an old manor house, they discover a wardrobe, which leads them to a magical world (Narnia) with animals that have human characteristics, a wicked witch, and other fantastical elements. A series of conflicts emerge as good battles evil with the children's assistance. Triumphant, they return to the manor through the wardrobe in a blink of an eye.
Other theatres have mounted productions of this tale- a recent Syracuse Stage production comes to mind. However, Imagination Stage/The Washington Ballet has a unique take on it in that it uses dancers and actors -sometimes simultaneously depicting the same characters- and puppetry to convey the story. Dialogue is used (sometimes sparingly) as well as song and dance to move the plot along. Seamlessly, these theatrical elements support one another and the end result is more than the sum of its parts. Palmer and Webre's choreography is particularly strong. During light-hearted moments, the movement is also light and airy. During the tense, conflict-ridden moments, the movements are more deliberate and heavy. Likewise, Matthew Pierce's string-heavy recorded music/compositions also set the mood for the real world and Narnia, and the changes that occur within each of them. Janet Stanford's lyrics/libretto (with additional lyrics by Bari Biern) are also somewhat successful in conveying plot points and the characters' needs, wants, and other emotions essential to the story. At times, the lyrics are innovative and interesting, while other times they are less so (particularly in Act I).
Eric Van Wyk's puppetry is a marvel. With assistance from three hard-working puppeteers (Tracy Ramsay , Betsy Rosen, and Michael John Casey, who also plays bit parts), Narnia's flying animals come to life as does the symbol of good in the land- Aslan the Lion. Van Wyk's Aslan puppet is intricate though purposeful. Grand in scale, the Aslan puppet is able to (with the assistance of the puppeteers) to take on cat-like qualities. This movement, when combined with Michael John Casey's voicing, demonstrates Aslan's power to the audience as well his inner-good. Van Wyk's minimal set also assists in creating a whimsical atmosphere in Narnia. At the same time, it can evoke images of an English manor house. Colin K. Bills (Lighting), Kathleen Geldard (Costumes), and Chris Baine (Sound) also are essential for establishing mood in both Narnia and the real world.
Last, but certainly not least, is the cast that's tasked with bringing C.S. Lewis' well-known characters to life. At the performance I witnessed (the dancing cast, in particular, rotates) Francesca Forcella was a standout as the White Witch (she also played Mrs. McCready). Her dancing was effortless and filled with palpable emotion. Sarah Beth Pfeifer lent her strong and powerful voice to the White Witch (and also played Mrs. Beaver/Mother). Collectively, the two actresses made clear that the character may have a beautiful exterior, but is particularly evil on the inside. Other standouts included Justine Moral as Lucy (non-dancing version). Her beautiful singing voice and child-like embodiment of one of the younger children was very effective. Her dancing counterpart, Carly Wheaton, caught my attention every time she was on stage and matched Moral in embodying Lucy's innocence.