Many American and British children grow up with “The Chronicles of Narnia,” either through the book series or through the movie franchise associated with Disney Studios and Walden Media.
This reviewer, however, had somehow overlooked the series as both child and adult, resulting in the Encore Players musical “Narnia,” being his introduction to this magical land.
I have been told this may not be the best way to be introduced to such a foundational work, which has been a part of many people’s childhoods, as the show seems to assume some prior knowledge of the overall story. Yet I am not so sure, for to me Encore’s “Narnia” appeared to be a rather good first quick dip into the C.S. Lewis fantasy novels, a series known for its religious allegorical associations. We should also point out that, though called “Narnia,” this musical focuses on just one of the seven books in the series, namely: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
For those who are also new to “The Chronicles of Narnia,” we provide a bit of plot: four siblings in the C.S. Lewis work escape the austere world of World War II England into the realm of Narnia, a world facing its own moral/magical crisis. While playing a game of hide-and-seek, the youngest of the four children, Lucy (Miranda Tonsetic), discovers that a wardrobe provides access to the world of Narnia.
Though Lucy’s siblings are at first unconvinced of her discovery, they are forced to believe her when they, too, accidentally enter Narnia through the same path. Their escape from a peaceful but monotonous household, of course, mirrors their earlier escape from the war. In both scenarios, they are unable to affect the conflicts going on around them. In Narnia, however, they discover a mission with which they can, and indeed must engage. They help defeat the malevolent White Witch (played effectively by Maria McLemore), while also rescuing their proud, condescending, and troublesome brother Edmund (Alex Valencic).
Edmund at first willingly follows the witch and her cause, only to discover that she is, in fact, evil and cruel and that he is in mortal peril. Along the way, situations are placed in front of each of the children, requiring a challenge to be overcome. Each conflict results in growth in character. Edmund learns, among other things, humility, while the practical but cynical elder sister, Susan (Erica Lu), develops her sense of imagination and levity. Her older brother, Peter, discovers his ability to lead and, when necessary, to fight for a just cause. The youngest, Lucy, learns to stand up for her dreams, while also becoming more grounded in life.
Standout performers in this production include Maria McLemore as the White Witch, Meredith Lawler as Mr. Beaver, and Maegan McBride as Mrs. Beaver. They sing very well and have effective Cockney-style and other English accents. Director Sarah Markovits is a soprano who has sung such operatic roles as Belinda in Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” and the choice of a vocal artist as director underscores the importance of music in “Narnia.” The music fluctuates between a retro Broadway sound, as in the vaguely exotic, slightly 1930’s sounding “Turkish Delight,” and an “Organs in Orbit” style jazz-lounge vibe in “Hot and Bothered.” These and “Deep Magic” are performed well. However, an occasional Kurt Weill-style off-beat and dissonance must make this material challenging for young people to sing, for in this production at Encore, most of the actors are children to early teens.
In fact, at Encore Stage, the cast and much of the crew are teenagers. Kerstin Fagerstrom, one of the set designers, is described in the playbill as a book lover. She quotes Shakespeare in the playbill and is a 12th grader at Trinity School at Meadow View, an independent religious school devoted to classic “Great Books.”
We thought she might be an ideal person to ask about the sets and also the influence the production of Narnia has had on her understanding of the “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” She states:
“Staging the transition through the wardrobe into Narnia was one of the most challenging technical aspects because going through the wardrobe into Narnia is one of the most iconic moments from the books. I didn’t want to disappoint! It involved cutting a wardrobe in half and lots of experimentation. The effect should feel like the whole audience is entering Narnia, and staging and reimagining the show has definitely reminded me of all the intriguing details and themes of the book. You’ll have to come see the show to see how it turned out!
Indeed, some of the strongest aspects of the production are costumes and especially the sets. The library, with the wardrobe and suspended windows, is detailed and evocative. The snowy landscape, gaslight, and sleigh conjure memories from both the book and the film. Also, an impressive throne room is seen towards the end of the production.
Encore Executive Director Sara Strehle Duke and her staff, cast, and crew are all excited to bring “Narnia” to the audience, and this reviewer found the experience enjoyable as a first dip into something for which he might acquire a greater taste.
“Narnia” is running at Arlington’s Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre through Jan. 19, 2020.