Regional Theater Review: MY FAIRYTALE (PCPA Theaterfest in Santa Maria and Solvang, CA)

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by Tony Frankel on September 3, 2011

in Theater-Regional

AN UGLY DUCKLING OF A MUSICAL

In Stephen Schwartz’ musical My Fairytale, now receiving its American premiere at PCPA in Solvang, well-known storyteller Hans Christian Anderson has an idea for an opera which will star singing sensation Jenny Lind. His pitch about a Chinese Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of PCPA Theaterfest’s production of Philip LeZebnick and Stephen Schwartz’ “My Fairytale” at Solvang Festival Theater and Marian Theatre in Santa Maria.Emperor is quickly ditched by the Royal Theatre Management, but Lind is intrigued. A manager hands Anderson a Greek tragedy named Atalante of Arcady, instructing him to come up with a new idea by morning. Maybe Anderson is stressed out, because he sees a small box with lights shooting out of it. He leans over it, his top hat falls in, and he disappears into the box, followed by his Shadow. Suddenly, he is in a dream world surrounded by his most famous characters. After fixing the broken porcelain leg of one of them, the characters implore him to stay with them because he can fix things, but Anderson wants to go home. The only person who can get him home is an ill Emperor, one who needs Anderson to bring him a curative Nightingale before he is well enough to help the Dane. Not long into My Fairytale, we are on a classically-structured, enchanted adventure, reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz.

But once our Danish teller of tales begins a journey with his Shadow and a young Boy, (discovered at the grave of his father and whose name, inexplicably, we don’t learn until the end of Act One), what could have been a dark, Into The Woods-style Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of PCPA Theaterfest’s production of Philip LeZebnick and Stephen Schwartz’ “My Fairytale” at Solvang Festival Theater and Marian Theatre in Santa Maria.mash-up of famous Anderson stories (ones that intertwine with the man who wrote them), becomes a Hans In Wonderland-style series of allegorical run-ins with his characters (the snow queen, a mermaid, etc.) that are seemingly dropped into the musical as a way to celebrate the legendary author.

While My Fairytale strives to incorporate personal aspects of Anderson’s life (born to a washerwoman and a cobbler, his real association with Lind), and achieves an uplifting message at the very end about believing in your passions (accompanied by the lovely “Can You Imagine That?”), it does, for the most part, become a procession of “children’s stories,” performed very much like children’s theatre. While, at times, it is a fun, silly, and adventurous journey, buoyed by the magnificent performance of Lesley McKinnell as Lind and the atmospheric direction of Scott Schwartz (Stephen’s son), it misses the mark as engaging storytelling.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of PCPA Theaterfest’s production of Philip LeZebnick and Stephen Schwartz’ “My Fairytale” at Solvang Festival Theater and Marian Theatre in Santa Maria.Perhaps the producers should have stuck with one storyteller: the book is by animation screenwriter Philip LaZebnick (Mulan), yet there are three additional writers credited along with Stephen Schwartz, whose score had four contributors adding music and lyrics. Flemming Enevold’s original concept was first produced in 2005 as part of Denmark’s bi-centennial celebration of Anderson’s birth. The concept of Anderson becoming a better storyteller by writing for the legitimate stage is intriguing; and while there are splashes of decidedly adult humor (a princess sings, “It’s hard to find a suitor that I don’t want to neuter”), My Fairytale needs to take a hint from Kreiger and Russell’s  Lucky Duck, a musical about the ugly duckling that stuck to a linear story and contained enough ribaldry to capture the attention of adults.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of PCPA Theaterfest’s production of Philip LeZebnick and Stephen Schwartz’ “My Fairytale” at Solvang Festival Theater and Marian Theatre in Santa Maria.Alice in Wonderland has proved to be difficult to translate into theatre and film as a satisfying story; perhaps, like Alice, My Fairytale’s plot would better suit a book. Anderson’s search is not for a White Rabbit, but a Nightingale, one that will heal an ailing Chinese emperor. Yet Anderson, like Alice, is constantly sidetracked and distracted by his own characters, The Boy’s mishaps, and his Shadow’s interventions. The part of the Shadow (the practical side of Anderson), needs to be far more evil for the show to contain greater conflict; as it is, this Jiminy Cricket-style conscience merely insists that Anderson write his story for Jenny Lind. Since there really is no clear plot trajectory here, this musical is only as good as the series of escapades that greet Anderson (played by Kevin Cahoon as the love child of Jerry Lewis and Motel the Tailor).

One segment has a group of ducks who want to annihilate the Boy because he is not like them (their song, “Kill It,” does not appear in the program). Puppet designer Emily DeCola constructed beautiful fowl, but they look more like chickens. Anderson, once again, rescues The Boy, and the ducks are never to quack again.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of PCPA Theaterfest’s production of Philip LeZebnick and Stephen Schwartz’ “My Fairytale” at Solvang Festival Theater and Marian Theatre in Santa Maria.Also appearing out of nowhere towards the end of Act One are the Bro Bro Brille (yeah, this critic has no idea who they are either – witches and robbers or something), who wish to cook Anderson and The Boy in a cauldron (to eat them?). The Robbers dance is magnificent, with athletic choreography (Michael Jenkinson) executed by a skillful ensemble. Anderson escapes their clutches by making up a story involving four items; he uses one of them, swan’s wings, to fly away with The Boy (who has somehow confiscated a Nightingale from the Bro Bro), singing, naturally, “On the Wings of a Swan.” The shadow somehow jumps on and the three plummet to the earth, singing “What will happen now?” The creators should have thought of that before the show started.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of PCPA Theaterfest’s production of Philip LeZebnick and Stephen Schwartz’ “My Fairytale” at Solvang Festival Theater and Marian Theatre in Santa Maria.Some of Stephen Schwartz’ musicals, though immensely popular at their onset, may have some killer songs, but they have proven to be associated with problematic books, such as Pippin, The Magic Show and Wicked, but all three of those shows were saved by Fosse, Doug Henning, and Joe Mantello, respectively. (To be fair, Wicked had a terrific story, but a weak book, and was saved by the biggest money-spenders of all: teenaged girls.) Schwartz continues his tradition of clever internal rhymes and some bouncy music, but his lyrics in My Fairytale fail to develop character and move the plot along. The tunes feel as arbitrarily inserted into the show as Anderson’s characters do, and the vast majority of melodies are largely forgettable; Schwartz is incapable, however, of Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of PCPA Theaterfest’s production of Philip LeZebnick and Stephen Schwartz’ “My Fairytale” at Solvang Festival Theater and Marian Theatre in Santa Maria.giving us nothing: his music styles range from Wagner to Rap to Ballad, and he is at his best with “Come Drown in my Love,” “Stay With Me,” and a splendid “Aria” for Lind.

All in all, My Fairytale is not a washout, thanks to Schwartz the Son’s clever staging and Story Theatre techniques (such as actors playing trees) throughout, aided by Alejo Vietti’s extraordinarily inventive costumes, most notably a headless woman. We must especially congratulate the aforementioned Ms. McKinnell, who enraptures us in one of the most ravishing performances of the year as she inhabits a multitude of characters with the same clarity and variety as her pure, distinctive voice.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of PCPA Theaterfest’s production of Philip LeZebnick and Stephen Schwartz’ “My Fairytale” at Solvang Festival Theater and Marian Theatre in Santa Maria.Anderson may learn that his stories have value, but we need to learn something from all of the individual stories at hand. Even though the ending was quite uplifting, we need to be on board from the start about who this Boy is and what the Shadow represents – a lot of the allegory is not clear until the end of the show (plus, we never figure out what in the heck Atalante of Arcady is). One hopes that an auteur begins tinkering with this material, and turns this pleasant ugly duckling of a musical into the magical swan that it could be. Until then, it’s ironic that a story about a storyteller suffers most in the storytelling department.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of PCPA Theaterfest’s production of Philip LeZebnick and Stephen Schwartz’ “My Fairytale” at Solvang Festival Theater and Marian Theatre in Santa Maria.photos courtesy of PCPA

My Fairytale
PCPA Theaterfest
Marian Theatre in Santa Maria, CA
Solvang Festival Theater in Solvang, CA
scheduled to end on September 25, 2011
for tickets, call 805.922.8313
or visit http://www.pcpa.org

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