If you ever wondered what would happen if Peter, Paul and Mary wrote a musical, “The Snow Queen” might just quench your curiosity. A folk music take on a Hans Christian Andersen tale, this charming show boasts a treasury of songs from Chicago composer Michael Smith, whose winsome score walks an accomplished line between childhood innocence and knowing melancholy. Director Frank Galati, collaborating with puppeteer Blair Thomas, makes this more than a sweet song cycle by bringing the story’s fantastical world to simple, highly theatrical life.
Smith moves quickly between styles of folk music, establishing in the first three numbers a nice variety of rhythm and tone. An acoustic opener is followed by something more contemporary to introduce the young leads. “Now Old Winter,” the bluesy tune that follows, sets the somewhat wistful tone for this unsentimental story of innocence lost and regained.
An onstage band, including Smith, plays the songs with verve, and the musicians step forward to portray the wide-ranging characters who populate the tale.
Thomas’ visual design incorporates elaborate, oversized puppets for the most imaginative creatures and a triptych of paper scrolls in the background. The black-and-white drawn images change with each scene in storybook fashion, establishing the fanciful nature of this world.
Andersen’s story tells of young sweethearts Kai and Gerda, played with appealing every-kid straightforwardness by youthful adult performers Andrew Keltz and Mattie Hawkinson.
While the show occasionally brings to mind “The Fantasticks” — young love of next-door neighbors, sweet music about seasonal changes reflecting what it means to grow up, bare-essentials theatricality — the story that develops isn’t so simple. The loss is not a generic boy-loses-girl misunderstanding but something more mythic. Kai’s eye and heart are pierced with ice from the devil’s splintered mirror, and he’s then spirited away by the mysterious Snow Queen and frozen in ice. Determined to find him, Gerda ultimately rescues him with a warming tear.
While other adaptations focus on the title character and her icy heart, Smith and Galati approach the tale at least partially as a coming-of-age bildungsroman. The most energetic early sequences envision Kai as very much a contemporary kid, out bonding with his male buddies in the song “Hitchin” before being taken by the Snow Queen. Once trapped in ice, the boy wonders why he ever wanted to be “too cool.”
Gerda’s search for her friend, which dominates the second half, never quite reverberates with relatable metaphors that would take this “Snow Queen” to a higher level. The story stays a bit on the abstract side, which makes the show not the easiest to follow from a narrative perspective despite the best efforts of Cheryl Lynn Bruce, an always pleasing, powerhouse presence as the Storyteller.
Biggest limitation here is that Smith’s songs tend to be expressions of character and situation and not really dramatic scenes. While the episodic story itself never develops enough force, Smith gets away with it because Andersen’s characters — and Galati’s clever staging — are so imaginative. With a small playing space, Galati and Thomas create a sweeping storybook, able to take us into flight (thanks to those background scrolls) or on a ride of magical white horses (with some terrific puppetry).
It’s not just the visual enhancements that make this work. Story isn’t all that necessary when the characters themselves can charm us so completely, particularly in a sequence of songs in act two.
There’s a princess (Kat Eggleston, showing comic panache), sitting on a pearl, who yearns for a smart mate; a reindeer (Chris Walz, terrific on the ukelele) who sings about how cold it is in Lapland; and a female robber (Barbara Barrow, with a powerful folk voice) whose critical mother (Linda M. Smith) rebukes her in song: “You sure you want to wear that to the robbery?” Composer Smith at one point gives voice to a raven puppet sitting on his head.
There’s something uncompromising and mature about this “Snow Queen”; it’s sweet, but also determinedly unsentimental. It’s child-friendly (the theater rightly recommends it for kids age 8 and up), but certainly witty and smart enough for adults. With its warmhearted sensibility and wintry setting, it works as a holiday offering, but it isn’t candy-coated and could well exist beyond the season.