Riddle me this: What dances, soars and levitates in mid-air, yet never quite gets off the ground? That would be “Hans Christian Andersen,” the latest retooling of a classic film musical as a stage tuner. Taking something old (Frank Loesser’s songs for the 1952 film), something new (a book by Sebastian Barry), and something airborne — literally, as director/choreographer Martha Clarke has fully half the cast dangling from wires — this ACT premiere is a stew whose key ingredients have yet to coalesce. Duly drubbed by most local crits, undeniably not-ready-for-primetime in terms of script and casting, the show does require doctoring. Yet it’s already in possession of something harder to buy, borrow or fix: An atmosphere of genuine theatrical enchantment. As long as Clarke stays on board, this in-progress stab at family entertainment will be well worth further development.
Clarke’s gently surreal, captivating presentation does much to offset a rather wonky premise: Presumably on his deathbed (though that’s never clear), beloved Danish storyteller Andersen (John Glover) reviews not just his classic tales but also his own biographical highlights. Or, as script has him painfully put it (twice, yet), “The things that hurt me into what I am.”
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There’s something ever so un-magical about a musical that packages grown-up dysfunctional whingeing as family fun — let alone as “explanation” for a famed author’s imaginative genius. At times the show seems to be on the verge of bursting into a 12-step song, as when Hans retroactively “forgives” his mean boyhood teacher (John Christopher Jones) or later waxes self-piteous over unrequited love for legendary singer Jenny Lind (Teri Dale Hansen).
We are the sum of our complaints, Barry’s book suggests. Hard enough to swallow in their usual self-help industry/culture-of-blame context, such tres ’90s sentiments (“The only thing constant is change,” “My work became my life,” etc.) don’t exactly improve when dumbed down for all-ages consumption.
Hence “Hans Christian Anderson” topples floorward whene’er a spoken word is heard. In fact, mouths opened for almost any reason are problematic: Hansen and Dashiell Eaves, both filling numerous ingenue-type roles, are the only performers here with any real vocal chops. (And very good ones, too — his boyish tenor and her bell-like soprano would stand out even amidst Broadway-level competition.)
Glover’s limited equipment works best in novelty tunes (“The Ugly Duckling,” the oddly plaintive “Inchworm”) that lend themselves to talk-singing. Other thesps, notably Jones, Jarlath Conroy (as Hans’ poor cobbler father) and George Hall (his senile grandpa) are poor even within the bounds of “character” vocalizing.
On the musical upside, Richard Peaslee’s arrangements of the Loesser songs for an 11-piece pit ensemble (keenly conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos) are exquisite.
All of the above might seem insurmountable flaws for a book tuner. Yet Clarke (“The Garden of Earthly Delights,” “Alice’s Adventures Underground”) has devised a show that “sings” primarily through pantomime and fabulous, snow-globe-like tableaux. Everything not “wired” is on wheels: Hans’ impoverished childhood village is a cluster of metallic doll-houses; the Emperor’s Nightingale (Hansen) trills amidst a feather-light palace’s Chinoiserie.
But the most rapturous effects are aerial, as Clarke deploys stage flight to ends far more integral and poetic than the “Peter Pan”-acrobatic norm. A remarkable movement ensemble leaps across rooftops as chimney-sweeps, dives from ocean “surface” to depth as mermaids (the evening’s entrancing prologue), skitters about in butterfly flocks.
Elsewhere they glide-walk just millimeters above the floor, as immediate and strange as familiar faces in a dream. Most resonant of all is the recurrent signature image of gentlemen in formal tuxes and top hats gracefully strolling atop skylines, then mountain peaks — Magritte-inspired enigmas bemusedly leading Andersen to the afterlife.
In literal terms, this is the darkest “children’s musical” in recent memory, what with stage space often partly masked-off in black, and Paul Gallo’s moody lighting likewise evoking dim recollection. Somehow it all works aesthetically for both adults and kids — a recent weekday matinee found both hard-of-hearing seniors and noisy school groups quickly subsumed in rapt absorption.
Robert Israel’s minimalist sets, Jane Greenwood’s costumes (especially the gossamer aerial ones), brief puppetry segs and one live dog add to the visual delight. Sound mix was a bit variable at performance seen, but given the presumably daunting logistics, Garth Hemphill’s audio design is superb.
While the Danny Kaye movie that the songs derive from is no classic in the artistic sense — it’s mawkish and pedestrian — this stage revamp could use a star with Kaye’s comic dynamism. (Robin Williams or Martin Short would be ideal.) Glover does well with the odd droll line, or when reciting a story like “The King’s New Clothes” in tones very like Edward Everett Horton’s vinegary “Fractured Fairy Tales” narrator on the TV “Bullwinkle” series. But he seems disinclined to parcel out more charm than absolutely necessary, and makes Andersen too much the brooding introvert.
In a mixed-bag support cast, juvenile players from the ACT Conservatory fill out their simple acting/singing duties quite pleasingly.
The half-century-old soundtrack songs (including previously unused “Shoe Song”) are abetted by a handful from lesser Loesser legit shows “Green Willow” (“Riddleweed”) and “Pleasures and Palaces” (“Barabanchik,” “What Is Life?,” “Far, Far Away”). They hold up very well, though their mostly uncomplicated, singsong nature is sometimes an odd fit with Clarke and Barry’s “darker” aspirations, as when condemned young lovers anxiously croon cheerful “No Two People” on the gallows — a juxtaposition rather more Sondheim-bleak than anything called “Hans Christian Andersen” need get into.