A ravishing score for eight singers, accordion, harp, trombone, percussion, cello and double bass — what more could you ask of a musical fairy tale? A darn good story, and “The Enchanted Pig” offers a twisty tale of love triumphant via envy, greed, a witch and a princess journeying to remove a spell. What’s more, it keeps children and adults, well, spellbound. Pretty damn good for what is essentially an opera.
The storyline spun from two little-known folk tales from Romania and Norway riffs on familiar themes. King Hildebrand (John Rawnsley) delivers an amusingly knowing song of cautionary advice to his three eager daughters, whose hair is twizzled and twirled into soft ice-cream towers. “Small old men with long gray beards/Are always on the make/That gingerbread thing in the woods/A house and not a cake.”
While the king’s away fighting a war, his daughters are told not to go into the little room he keeps locked. And so, like all children, they nod nicely and do precisely the opposite.
In the room they are confronted by an all-singing book of fate — marvelously dour Nuala Willis, wearing a shellac-black wig from which grows the book — who tells them who they will marry. Everyone is exuberantly loved up except Flora, the youngest. Why? Because she has to marry a pig. He’s hairy. And from the North.
In a structure not dissimilar to that of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods,” “happy ever after” is only the beginning. With her sisters swiftly assigned their suitably dishy princes, Flora (Caryl Hughes at the press perf) swaps the palace for a sty, only to discover that her pig is actually a handsome man bewitched. So far, so frog prince (with more laughs).
Flora sets off into the world to break the spell placed by a more than usually devious witch (dark-toned Willis again), who, thanks to Dick Bird’s tremendous designs, has a fondness for wearing pink and trimming pigs’ heads out of topiary hedges.
Flora’s journey to a hard-won happy ending sees her encountering all manner of people exemplifying different kinds of love, all of whom are sharply characterized by Jonathan Dove’s immensely evocative music.
His score has occasional echoes of Sondheim (“Pacific Overtures”), Britten (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and even Walton (his Coronation marches), but the overall flavor is completely idiosyncratic. More importantly, his music is expressly designed for drama (he’s written 20 operas and more scores for theater productions). Dove uses music to tell stories and drive everything forward.
Dove’s command of rhythm allows for wit. With a strong beat in place, words can be placed on or off it to comic effect. And librettist Alasdair Middleton provides well-shaped, pared-down words that lift when sung.
The music also has a zesty freshness because none of it is amplified or miked. Thanks to music supervisor Stuart Stratford and a team of repetiteurs led by Stuart Wild, an astonishing amount of the text is entirely audible, a rarity in any music-theater form.
Much of the credit belongs to the cast, who not only have highly trained voices but can act. John Rawnsley and Willis have a hilarious duet of old married love, crisply choreographed by Philippe Giraudeau; and Kate Chapman is a knockout as a hideously spoiled, foot-stamping bride-to-be: “Do you call this a tiara?”
Atop a spiraling lighthouse, Joshua Dallas as the Man in the Moon wears a huge silver crescent that splashes light all over the auditorium as he croons over shimmering harp arpeggios.
The standout, however, is Akiya Henry, a tiny bundle of fire on legs who can sing up a storm, nail a gag and bring the house down jiving with Delroy Atkinson as the Sun.
Bird builds a palace of tarnished silver at the end of the intimate horseshoe-shaped auditorium and has a ball transforming it at every turn. He even manages to have Flora fly over the audience — all the more impressive in so small a house.
Having reopened the Young Vic with an eye-widening staging of Dove’s community opera “Tobias and the Angel,” director John Fulljames goes two-for-two with this enjoyable production. The fusion of the creative team is evident throughout.
The press-night performance kept an audience of adults and children as young as 6 simply rapt. Is it opera? Is it a musical? Who cares? Musical theater as successfully ambitious as this is living proof that whatever their age, auds neither want nor need to be patronized.