Friday, June 13, 2003

Wonder and light: Fairy tales about fairy tales take flight at MSMT

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Since the 1952 hit movie Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye, there have been several failed attempts to put the musical live on stage. Twice in the 1970s, the London Palladium theater produced adaptations of the movie, based on famed composer/lyricist Frank Loesser’s original music. And in 2000, the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco put on a rewritten version that failed to do justice either to the familiar tales or to the musical genius of a man who wrote for Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Broadway.

Critics loved the music in each version, but were nonplussed by the storytelling — not Andersen’s fairy tales, of course, but by writers’ explorations of the meaning and inspiration for his work.

Now in its third incarnation, Hans Christian Andersen is on the boards at Bowdoin College’s Pickard Theater, home to the Maine State Music Theatre, and is finally just right, if the opinion of Loesser’s widow means anything.

" I think that he would be very pleased, " said Jo Sullivan Loesser, only three hours before opening night last week. " I happen to think it’s some of his best work. "

And given previous criticism, it’s a positive sign that, as Jo said, " the only thing that’s the same is the music. " The rest has been totally rewritten by Tony Award–winning Maury Yeston, whose Broadway show Nine was up for eight Tonys last weekend, including best revival of a musical, which it won.

" I have been thinking about this for 15 years, " Yeston said. He wrote a version of it then, and revised it three years ago. Now, after further work, it’s set and going.

Kaye’s Andersen was a cobbler who told stories to amuse children but yearned to become a " serious " writer. Now we know better — that Hans (played here by Ken Barnett) was an aspiring writer facing tough competition in the age of HonorĂ© de Balzac and Victor Hugo. Yeston’s script nods to the original: Now, the cobbler is Andersen’s father.

" I love the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. No one has done what this man did, " said Loesser. And no one has done what Frank did, either: " I think he captured his writing completely. " In the famous song " I’m Hans Christian Andersen, " Loesser’s lyrics bring out the wonder of inanimate objects, the sense of desire and humor in an interaction between a table and a chair, who come alive in music as surely as trees and rocks and earth do in Andersen’s tales.

The story for this production is about the coming of age of the man whose stories we grew up with. And rather than just sticking to the truth, it takes on its own life as a fairy tale about the king of the genre. And just as Loesser broke new ground in musical storytelling, so here does the character of Andersen open new doors in balletic narrative.

Yeston’s research revealed that Andersen printed his first story in 1835, the same year the Royal Danish Ballet was founded, and, shortly afterward, ballerinas started dancing en pointe. " Suddenly he found his voice, and suddenly romantic ballet was created, " Yeston said.

Andersen loved from afar Jenny Lind, a Swedish soprano born in 1820 who became famous in the 1840s. To simplify the plot and to further explore the parallels of Andersen’s life and the Royal Ballet, Yeston changed Lind to the fictional ballerina Jenny Starhaven (Amy Bodnar), the belle of the ballet ball.

A chance ticket to a Starhaven show changes Hans’s world, drawing him into working backstage at the ballet and later to writing a libretto, to impress Jenny and win her heart. The reality of the writing life serves as a backdrop, with a group boarding house offering a strong contrast to the privileged life of a ballerina.

From the beginning of the show, Andersen’s tales and Loesser’s songs about them are given new layers, new meanings that unfold like flowers meeting the dawn of a new day.

A late-night vision of Jenny gives Hans new energy and inspiration, as well as an idea. While Andersen might have claimed he saw a group of young ducks and developed " The Ugly Duckling, " here Hans seizes onto Jenny’s confession that she has not always known she is beautiful for the kernel of the story he writes about his love.

Yeston’s genius is to have this insight and to pair Loesser’s song of the story with a silly, fun dance (choreographed by Ginger Thatcher) including both ballet and tap style performances by duck-dancers complete with scuba-divers’ fins on their feet.

And though Yeston and Loesser never met, they work together as if old friends, bringing music, story, and character into a rich concert of life. The most successful song in the 1952 version was " Thumbelina, " which Kaye’s character invented to make a group of children smile. Here, a desperate Hans devises the tale to avoid eviction from his lodgings. Other songs serve to move the plot along as well: " Inchworm " scolds a bean-counting businessman, while " The Princess and the Pea " is an on-the-spot answer to a friend’s query about what Hans has been up to all day.

It is a magical experience for an audience, held voluntarily and pleasantly captive in the (blessedly) air-conditioned theater. The old familiar tunes take flight on the wings of Yeston’s plot, and with the top-notch performers at MSMT the songs reach deep from the souls of the on-stage characters to the cores of the people watching, bringing both laughter and stunned silence out of nowhere, as if the audience members themselves are in the cast.

The modern world has its own part in the show: Two characters (played by Lori Johnson and Seth Belliston) wear rollerblades every time they appear on stage, artfully gliding among the other cast members and embodying the flow of mind and heart through this tale. And without giving too much away, ultraviolet light is used to magical effect.

Which moves directly into costuming: Most designers are hard-pressed to work in regular light. Jimm Halliday handled the normal stuff with great skill, even conning a young boy into tails and culottes, where he seemed happy enough. And then Halliday explored other spectrums of light, other definitions of darkness.

The set, too, defied convention. Literally a frame of stories surrounding and supporting the play, the bookends fold back and reveal the life bustling beneath the pages. Intricate details were not ignored, and costumes, set and choreography married each other in polygamist festivals of color and movement, especially in the underwater scenes.

" We wanted to go somewhere that would give us a good production, " Jo said. Yeston agreed that they had found it: MSMT’s crew " can accomplish in three weeks what takes most people three months. " Yeston also raved about MSMT’s newly purchased rehearsal space, calling it " better than anything you can get in New York. "

Producers from all over the US and Europe have been badgering Jo and Yeston for months. " We’ve had to sort of fight them off " and make them wait until the show was ready, Jo said. She is finally allowing two English producers to see it, but not on opening night.

They have also had inquiries from Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden. Jo is considering a run in Denmark, too, Andersen’s home country. A theater just outside Copenhagen, in Malmo, might be just the place to catch this show again soon. When the Loessers went to Denmark in the 1960s, Frank was given a hero’s welcome, with " Wonderful Copenhagen " — the opening number in this performance — played everywhere they went, like " Hail to the Chief " for the US president.

But this script, this score, these roles will also see humbler stages. Jo envisions high school performances nationwide, and though she immediately gets her back up when people ask for the rights to Loesser’s work, she welcomes schools with open arms.

There will not be a Broadway production, however. " We don’t need to, " Jo says candidly. " We would rather play the country. " Just as Andersen’s stories continue to do.

Hans Christian Andersen
Written by Maury Yeston. Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Directed by Charles Abbott. Musical direction by Edward Reichert. With Ken Barnett and Amy Bodnar. Maine State Music Theatre through June 21. Call 207-725-8769.