Everybody knows the story of Narnia, or at least they should if they’ve been out from under a rock any time during the past fifty years. Group of kids go through a wardrobe into the magical land of Narnia ruled by a witch, with the aid of Aslan the lion defeat her to become kings and queens, Christian allegory of sin and Christ’s sacrifice, yadda yadda yadda.
Anyway, it’s been presented in a number of different mediums over the years, but the challenges of condensing and adapting the story to the stage certainly have to be difficult. When on top of that the adaptation is a musical, this task becomes immense.
Musicals are challenging by their very nature. Not only do you have all of the responsibilities of presenting a coherent story, you have the added responsibilities of delivering entertaining song and dance numbers. Overall, I thought the Sul Ross production of Narnia succeeded on both accounts.
You wouldn’t have known it from the beginning. The musical introduction with nothing else happening went on for far too long, even in my second viewing when I recognized all the different themes being played in the medley. This made the show’s start and sub par opening number feel far worse than they actually were. The four kids and Mrs. Macready were all good actors, but the dialogue and musical number itself was mediocre. Exceedingly mediocre. Save Edmund, I thought they all proved they could sing well later on, Susan especially, though unlike Lucy she didn’t get many chances to demonstrate until very late in the show. Susan and Peter seemed to have had their potential wasted in terms of the distribution of acting and singing opportunities, spending three-fourths of the play watching it from the stage. This isn’t the fault of the production, but two very good performers were stuck in roles that didn’t do much to showcase them.
Regardless, once the story moved into Narnia, everything picked up in terms of quality. This is due in large part to the arrival of the new characters, most especially the White Witch.
Most of the actors heavily favored one or the other when it came to acting or singing. As I suggested earlier, Edmund’s singing left much to be desired, but his acting was everything an Edmund should be. Physically, Fenris Ulf did what was required of him and acted well, but the fellow couldn’t sing. On the other side, the Dwarf hammed it up too much for my liking and the accent sounded forced, but her singing was magnificent and the duets with the Witch might have saved the whole show from its bad start.
But those numbers were ultimately special because of the Witch, the only character I thought was spectacular both dramatically and vocally. She had the best part in the play (with the possible exception of the Beavers), but definitely made the most of it. From speaking sternly to seductively to raging to hitting high and low notes, she was really, really fantastic.
If I’m going to hold up the Witch as the measuring stick for all “main” characters, then certainly Mr. & Mrs. Beaver would be the same for the “supporting” characters. These two were absolutely fantastic. Did they have more opportunities than most? No doubt, but the point is that they made the most of them, in the process making almost every scene they were in worth watching. Mr. Beaver’s low class British accent alone probably caused all of his lines to be funnier than they are written in the script, and while his singing voice didn’t have the “wowing” greatness of the White Witch or Aslan, he turned in a workman-like performance and hit all of his notes, something which fit the character well. The chemistry between him and his wife was equally amusing, and the most entertaining portions of the play had to be the two of them playing off one another. Her stronger ability was in singing, if his was in acting, but both were very good at both and complimented one another perfectly.
A more dubious honor goes to Mr. Tumnus, who also performed with equal lack of skill acting and singing. Although left off the program, “You Can’t Imagine” was without a doubt the worst musical number in the entire show because he had to carry it and couldn’t. The Stag’s dance provided some humorous entertainment in the background, but Tumnus’s singing was literally painful. I mention this not out of meanness because I’m sure the actor playing him put in as much work as everyone else and deserves that credit. However, he does provide a very good example of just how difficult it is to meet the requirements of a musical, and though in my estimation he failed this, it highlights the successes of the rest of the performance.
Aslan let me down as well, unfortunately, but then I suppose the role of Jesus the Lion has big paws to fill. It wasn’t that the actor’s singing or acting was bad. Overall he was surely one of the best in the play. But of all things Aslan is supposed to be, he just wasn’t. In terms of stature and voice, the actor met the requirements, but the frequent “roars” did not suffice, and the gentleness and strength were rarely presented believably. His costume actually detracted in all of these areas; yellow pants, a yellow shirt with shiny material on the chest and shoulders, and a lion mask/headdress do not a great costume make, not when the character is supposed to be the most powerful and majestic person on stage.
I should mention that this was an aberration, though. I thought both the costumes and set were terrific, especially the latter. Except for Aslan, only the Unicorn and Stag had costumes that seemed lacking, while the actual children in the play (Dryads, Fox, Rabbit, etc.) were all ridiculously cute, due more to their costumes or their behavior, I know not. The Cruelies (whose entrance I loved) and Narnians looked great, and helped fill out the stage up to and through the climactic final battle.
In the first show I saw, the foreground swordfight between Fenris Ulf and Peter was very bad, even by the standards of plays, but by the Monday night show, they seemed to have gotten most of these problems fixed and it had the violence and energy you want to see out of a climactic struggle. But in both cases, the highlight of the battle was still when Aslan grabbed the Witch and took her screaming offstage. Anyway, a good last scene before all of the wrap up.
Of course it’s tough to have a musical without music, and the orchestra playing live from backstage did great. While I didn’t always like the songs they played, I must admit that besides the trumpet, they were all marvelous. My only complaint was that whenever the light on stage dimmed, the lights for the orchestra made them be seen from behind the back curtain, and unlike children, I’m of the opinion orchestras should be heard and not seen. It’s my understanding this was done more or less intentionally, but it was still distracting on several occasions when acting was going on on stage but behind it the director was waving his arms. But they played well, and that’s the important thing.
Overall, a very well put together show with a lot of work put into it, and it definitely showed. Except for the very beginning, it was entertaining enough that I didn’t mind seeing it twice and able to be enjoyed by people of all ages.