Syracuse Stage and SU Drama combine for the lush fantasy worlds of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Putting the Chronicles of Narnia on stage was not an inevitable or easy choice. True, C.S. Lewis’ sevenvolume series of young adult novels has attracted millions of readers for 60 years. A movie adaptation of the first volume, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), was a box-office hit six Christmases ago. But the version now at Syracuse Stage predates and is unrelated to the movie, although some of the action in the first half-hour runs parallel to it.
Poet Adrian Mitchell put this one together with music by Shaun Davey for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1998, and it has flourished in Britain ever since. It has been little seen in the United States, however, and presenting it now is a bit of a risk. Also a challenge: We’re seeing if the magic of live theater, augmented with music, can compete with electronics for youthful attention.
This is a big show, but not a long one, with 27 performers, many doubling up in roles. Syracuse Stage’s 12-year-old holiday collaboration with the Syracuse University Drama Department makes it all possible, especially as that brings along choreographer Anthony Salatino. This year student actors take prominent speaking and singing roles. Specialized professional talent is again imported, most importantly director Linda Hartzell from Seattle, one of the few American venues where Lion has been seen. At the Archbold Theater, longtime music director Dianne Adams McDowell now has a more appropriate pit from which to work with eight players.
Although more of the magic and fun of Lion are in the second act, some of the best surprises come early on. Action begins in a drab London train station, September 1939, the first month of World War II. The four Pevensie children—curious Lucy (Jenaha McLearn), redhaired Susan (Marie Eife), tall Peter (Amos Vanderpoel) and difficult Edmund (Charlo Kirk)—are being removed to the countryside for their safety. Astute children in the audience will be rewarded by the subtle prefigurations of things to come. They will notice the independent railway porter (Jordan Barbour), who speaks up for himself. Yes, the same actor will reappear later as Aslan, the lion of the title.
Despite the welcome from their country host, Professor Kirk (James Judy), the children are uneasy in their exile. The children wander around, and Lucy climbs into a tall, wooden wardrobe, a common piece of furniture in English houses that lacked American closets. The first readers of Lewis’ book in 1950 would have thought of a wardrobe as a place to hide from authority, perhaps giving an opportunity for a nap. So Lucy’s astounded that the back of the wardrobe gives away, allowing her to pass into the fantasy world of Narnia.
Scenic designer Carey Wong and lighting designer Rick Paulsen summon up Narnia in a split-second. Stairways and panels from the real world fly away to reveal a world of bright pastels in a design that blends a pre-Raphaelite idealized medieval with Maxfield Parrish, all very dreamy. In a test of stagecraft and director Hartzell’s control of timing, Narnia must disappear shortly after we see it because it was Lucy’s vision alone, and doubting Edmund must show up to challenge her. This back and forth ends when all the children make it through and we see all sorts of wondrous creatures, like the Centaur (Marcelo Pereira), the Dryads and Nyads, in costumes by Catherine Hunt, and others delivered by puppet designer Annett Mateo.
In her solo entry, Lucy learns what’s what in Narnia when she encounters a singing Faun named Tumnus (Maclain W. Dassatti) in the lyrical exposition, “Always Winter Now.” Things have been going badly now for about a century through the malign rule of the evil White Witch (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan), who has decreed perpetual winter with no relief at Christmas. Tumnus is actually supposed to be doing the vile bidding of the Witch, but through a kind of easy-going lassitude, he can explain without executing any threat.
Davey’s score is one with the visual conception and thus feels as though it was composed more than a century ago instead of 1998. Davey, once known as an Irish traditional musician, also supplied the score for James Joyce’s The Dead (1999), for what the literary refined might have embraced a hundred years ago. Audiences should find this an easily accessible musical idiom, as it is popular, much like what one might have heard in the better sort of music halls before the advent of ragtime and jazz.
From that same popular theater Lewis and adapter Mitchell have borrowed two stagy but cozy comic characters, Mr. (Eric Leviton) and Mrs. Beaver (Jayne Muirhead). They provide the Pevensie children with earthy, practical perspective in working-class accents not heard elsewhere in the cast.
People who remember Tilda Swinton’s bloodless and pigmentless White Witch in the 2005 film will be delighted with the Donovan incarnation: She has very black eyebrows and a cackling speaking voice that could cut metal. As a singer she’s a seductress, urging Edmund to relish his Turkish delight and later calling everyone to the carnival. Adding to her stature is a wondrous headdress that would have suited a Medusa conceived in the Flash Gordon comic strip. Hartzell and her designers recognize that a good villainess should both scare the kids and be fun. Her conception also mocks the Christmas she has banned as she enters on a sleigh drawn by two high-stepping reindeer (Aisling Halpin and Jonalyn Saxer).
Two males oppose her, both baritones.
One is Father Christmas himself (James Judy, previously seen as Professor Kirk), dressed to match the English template and looking nothing like our Santa, a creature designed in commercial advertising. The Witch’s real adversary is the Lion, Aslan (Jordan Barbour, again), whose name comes first in the title. Barbour’s powerful singing voice, heard in “Come to the Table” and “The Lion Leaps,” and his commanding speaking voice, which bears a touch of James Earl Jones, should have been enough but he also lip-syncs a prerecorded roar. It provides the desired effect, and the children like it so much Hartzell has him repeat it.
Lewis’ day job was serving as an Oxford don, and his books are loaded with allusions to classical, Norse and Celtic literatures, some of which survive on stage.
he was an energetic but genteel apologist for the Christianity of the
High Anglican persuasion. None of that intrudes in this stylish,
well-disciplined entertainment. Go through the wardrobe to Narnia and be
This production runs through Dec. 31. See Times Table for information.