Arts & Events
Near the beginning of the musical, “Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”, a cranky housekeeper at a historic English country estate warns four newly arrived children, “I see you all have that ‘I’m going to explore Marbleton Manor’ look. Forget it. The Age of Exploration is OVER. Understood?”
Fortunately the children ignore her and, through the agency of the Berkeley Playhouse, local audiences are drawn into a fascinating and fun world of imagination and allegory that plays through Sunday, April 3, 2011 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts on College Avenue.
It’s a good show and from the online ticket website it looks (as of this writing) that seats are still available for several upcoming performances.
The show is a musical adaption of the enduring C.S. Lewis novel. Jon Tracy directs this particular production, with musical direction by Amy Dalton.
If you don’t know the plot of the book, it’s easily summarized. The four Pevensie children—Peter, Susan, annoying Edmund, and precocious little Lucy—are evacuated from London during the Blitz to a mysterious country estate where they find a strange portal that leads them into the magical land of Narnia.
Narnia’s mythical creatures-come-to life and talking animals unhappily dwell in a perpetual winter imposed by the vain and capricious White Witch. “A witch doesn’t have to keep promises,” she says at one point. “All she has to do is make them.” Imagine Sarah Palin given supernatural powers, waving her wand to turn critics to stone.
On the run from the Witch’s wolf minions, the siblings discover that they are the humans (“Sons of Adam”, “Daughters of Eve”) described in an ancient Narnian prophecy as saviors of the land. And Aslan—a Christ-like lion (not a leonine Christ)—is on the move as well, returning to Narnia with his own methods and motivations to defrost the frigid rule of his nemesis.
After being separated by Edmund’s childish cupidity, then reunited, the children take up arms in the defense of Narnia and Aslan’s cause, and begin to grow up at the same time. Betrayals, battles, and redemption ensue until Good wins out. End of story (until the next book in the series).
The stage version consolidates several of the scenes and settings from the already spare novel but gracefully retains the essence of the plot while turning it into a musical.
The music by Thomas Tierney and the lyrics by Ted Drachman are workmanlike but didn’t, for me at least, make this the most memorable musical imaginable. The morning after the performance I could only recall the tune and some lyrics from a single one of the songs (“You can’t imagine, how beautiful it was—you had to be there…” Mr. Tumnus sings about Narnia before the Witch.)
Still, the Berkeley Playhouse makes it a lively and accomplished production and you will remember the performances.
The standouts are Edmund and Lucy, played on the night we attended by Alexander Franklin and Dakota Dry. (Will Reicher and Maytal Bach alternate in the parts, so you may see them instead).
The eight-year-old Dry is a remarkable performer, both poised and emotive. The experienced 12 year-old Franklin—this is listed as his seventh Berkeley Playhouse production—has a thoroughly confident stage presence and convincingly conveys the most complex character in the show.
I thought Peter, the older brother, was directed as a bit of a prig, and Susan, the older sister, as something of a pacifist worrier, making them less than likeable characters in some respects. It’s initially hard to see even the simplest creatures flocking immediately to their cause. But they do play their parts well.
An adult cast with extensive acting credits backs up the four children. Several of them are Shotgun Players veterans on the local scene. Reid Davis and Mary Gibboney chew up the scenery (but, fortunately, not the Julia Morgan woodwork of the building) as the comic and lusty Mrs. and Mr. Beaver who bicker their way through the plot “Who ever heard of desperate beings fleeing for their lives with a sewing machine?!” he complains.
Michael Barrett Austin is a whimsical and pensive Mr. Tumnus (rather oddly attired like an English toff), and Terry Rucker has a pitch-perfect cameo as Father Christmas and the lead, of course, in one of the more vigorous musical numbers.
As Aslan, Anthony Rollins-Mullens is capable and convincing and sings with a deep, mellow, voice. He also portrays the professor of Marbleton Manor at beginning and end of the play.
Charisse Loriaux, the White Witch (and the straitlaced housekeeper Mrs. Macready) probably gets the most stage time of the adult performers and turns in an icily evil performance with a comic overlay.
I couldn’t quite get past her flowing white fur robes—I half expected her to break into an Andrew Lloyd Webber number at any moment—but, truth be told, after looking back at the book that’s sort of the way C.S. Lewis wrote the character.
There’s a skilled and versatile supporting ensemble of both adults and children. Almost all of them play at least two parts—some take on three—and they do it so well that you don’t really notice the slavering wolf soldier in one scene is a serene, suited, servant in the next.
Before the show I wondered how a small company could produce convincing sets for this mythical world, especially in the converted confines of the Julia Morgan originally a church sanctuary. I shouldn’t have worried. The performance is well staged, from snow flurries to battle scenes.
Outdoor Narnia—the setting for most scenes—is an abstract spiky white and gray (Winter), or multi shade green (Spring) backdrop on a central turntable, and smaller sets—such as the Beaver lodge or the cave of Mr. Tumnus—rotate into view on an outer ring. Freestanding windows, doors, and monumental wardrobe wheel in to create the England scenes at Marbleton Manor. It’s simple and clever.
The one drawback in production values at the performance I saw was that the amplification of the off-stage musicians occasionally competed with the singing and spoken dialog, particularly in the case of some of the younger singers. But that’s a minor issue in what is otherwise a creatively and capably staged show.
During that same show a cloudburst drummed down on the roof of the Julia Morgan Theater but it was not so much a distraction as a reminder that this was genuine community theater carrying on a long-standing Berkeley tradition.
I have wondered before if the current Berkeley Playhouse (founded in 2007) team realizes that nearly a century ago in the 1920s there was an original “Berkeley Playhouse”, as well as a later, “Berkeley Playmakers” company?
The first Berkeley Playhouse also performed in an old brown-shingle church, Berkeley’s original First Baptist Church that then stood Downtown on Allston Way, across from the present day Brower Center.
It relied on both acting professionals and talented locals, and some of its participants developed national reputations, including Everett Glass and Irving Pichel (who later led the famed Pasadena Playhouse).
Community theater in those days was inspired by the fear that as motion pictures grew in popularity and traveling, professional, acting companies died out, there would be an end to the ancient tradition of live, local, drama performances.
The fact that this never came to pass is due to people like the leaders of both Berkeley Playhouses—then and now. Go see this show and be part of a Berkeley tradition that is older and richer than the current performers may know.
IF YOU GO…
“Narnia” plays through April 3 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts on College Avenue, at Derby. Shows are on Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 2 and 7:00, and Sunday at 11 and 3:30.
See berkeleyplayhouse.org for details and ticket prices. This Thursday, March 24, is a “half price / pay what you can” performance. You can either order tickets on line for $15, or pay what you can at the door if seats are still available.
The on-line ticket service lets you to see which seats are available at each remaining performance without committing to a purchase, and will also allow you to purchase specific reserved seats.