The Hans Christian Andersen tuner “My Fairytale” distills the kidlit genius’ oeuvre into a satisfying narrative brimming with style and color, puppetry and pageant. Appealing songs by Stephen Schwartz — in his mellow-“Godspell” rather than bravura-“Wicked” mode — are wrapped around a familiar but workable Dorothy-in-Oz framing device, the woodsmoke flavor of Andersen’s darker tales coming through in Scott Schwartz’ staging for PCPA. If there’s room in the marketplace for a midsized musical extravaganza appealing to moppets and grownups alike, “My Fairytale” could fit the bill.
The tuner was originally conceived in Denmark by impresario Flemming Enevold to celebrate the author’s 2005 bicentennial, and is now tied to the centennial of California’s Danish-American settlement Solvang. In this telling, Andersen (Kevin Cahoon) is poised between an ambition to write serious opera libretti and his whimsical fancies, a readily dramatizable conflict with the added benefit of fidelity to his life’s known facts.
Offered a late-night challenge at Copenhagen’s Royal National Theater to adapt weighty myth “Atalante” for visiting diva Jenny Lind (Lesley McKinnell), Andersen falls through the looking glass — actually into the briefcase, a nice piece of legerdemain — into a magical land inhabited by the characters and creatures he will eventually pen, from the Ugly Duckling to the emperors who, respectively, pine for a nightingale and wear no clothes.
He can’t just click his Red Shoes together three times to get home, but keeps stumbling into adventures inspired by the passionate, even erotically-tinged tales yet to come. The pining Little Mermaid and icy Snow Queen are authentic products of Andersen’s psyche, granting a strange dramatic integrity to the journey.
Emotional underpinnings are provided by songwriter Schwartz’s ecstatic “On the Wings of a Swan” and two of his most stirring ensemble numbers in years, “Stay with Us” and “Can You Imagine That?”
While id bubbles beneath the stories’ surface, there’s also much eye-popping fun, Alejo Vietti’s lavish costumes set against Tom Buderwitz’s parchment-paper floor and backdrop. Sequences are pleasingly color-coded — a ravishing blue-green wash for “The Little Mermaid”; Halloween orange and black for marauding robbers — and puppet designer Emily DeCola provides outsized poultry who menace the Ugly Duckling in a calico-infused barnyard, and a darling saucer-eyed pooch.
At this juncture, the spectacle works better than the story. By introducing Andersen as a goofy, screeching child-man already besotted by fables, and having the Lind commission foisted on him rather than its being a personal project, chief librettist Philip LaZebnik undercuts the fundamental premise of a creator genuinely torn between artistic poles. Andersen needs to find his mission en route, but as yet that arc is cloudy.
Moreover, LaZebnik hasn’t granted enough personality to the grim Shadow (Erik Stein) and peasant Boy (Marisa Dinsmoor) who dog Andersen’s steps representing the yin-and-yang of his aesthetic bent. Saddled with Schwartz’s unpleasant “Fellow Traveler,” they are never less than creepy; one keeps hoping they’ll step aside to let us watch the fairy-tale folk, and happily they consistently oblige.
Once he sets aside his overaggressive Tommy Steele quality, Cahoon proves a likeable, versatile leading man. And McKinnell’s remarkable ability to move from poignant romance to knockabout comedy, as the incarnation of all of Andersen’s feminine fantasies, is no fairy tale.