Huge cast for Ariel production

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By Philip Pearce

One important blessing of live theater compared to electronic media is the interaction between live performers on stage and live spectators out front. It’s true, of course, that a lethargic house full of patrons “sitting on their hands” can discourage the most buoyant cast and crew. But an alert and excited audience response sets up a partnership that can only make things go better and better as the show moves along.

The second weekend of Narnia, Ariel Theatrical’s Christmas musical based on C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, had that satisfying interchange of energy and delight right from the start. Excited kids laughed and shouted and applauded. A particularly enchanted patron two rows behind me voiced her spirited comments on what was happening on stage and her speculations as to what might be going to happen, and that seemed to be okay with everybody on stage and off.

As the expression of the vision of its founder Gail Higginbotham, Ariel Theatrical’s aim—printed in the program—is to use “the art and discipline of theatre to inspire young people to understand that personal integrity, respect for others, and an acceptance of responsibility for choices made are the keys to building a principled and productive life.”

Performers like Angela Goulart as Lucy, Mark Kragh as Peter, Diana Georgariou as Susan and William Van Nes as Edmund showed a mature grasp of how to move and speak on a stage and how to project the words and music of a score written by Ted Drachman and Thomas Tierney’s and ably played by a small ensemble led by Barney Hulse. Effective as all the principals were, that mission statement kept me watching everyone concerned, right down to the smallest rabbits and mice, dwarves and fauns in a cast of more than 100, their adept coordinated choreography and singing, their energy and delight in being part of this impressively organized theater piece.

The adaptation is effective enough. Inevitably the staging of Lewis’s epic tale has to simplify some elements, sometimes at the expense of the underlying Christian message.

Having been involved in three productions which included characters taken from this or other pieces of Lewis fiction, I am aware of the challenge presented in depicting the Christ figure of the Lion Aslan. Played too cozy and cute, a stage Aslan can set up disturbing cross-references to Bert Lahr lumbering around in The Wizard of Oz. Acted with too relentless an emphasis on his religious significance, Aslan becomes just a distant, sermonizing symbol. Lewis avoids these pitfalls by endowing Aslan with an element of terror and at the same time a quiet sense of humor and the Jules Tasca adaptation, in general, takes those elements into account. Fortunately, Terry L. Smith brings considerable skill and dignity to this central role. His Aslan usually enters roaring and Smith’s strong vocal gifts make the roars anything but cute. What is missing from the script is a sufficiently strong presentation of the great Lion’s sacrificial death at the climax of the story. The adaptation unwisely evades the power and pathos of the Gethsemane-like sequence where heroine Lucy waits with and comforts the stricken hero before he is killed by the forces of the White Witch.

Gail Higginbotham takes on the role of that chilly villainous lady with great style and venom, transported by a cleverly organized reindeer-driven sleigh (she’s cast a spell which makes it “always winter but never Christmas”) and served by a nasty dwarf minion played with zest and an enormous beard by Marco Pizarro-Silva.

Overall it’s a technically slick production with quick transitions that employ different portions of the theater as performance areas. The sets are impressive, notably the opening pre-Narnian British manor house sequence with its giant “Lion and Lamb” tapestry by Kalene Walker effectively establishing the tale’s two worlds of World War II Britain and the enchanted land of talking animals and wicked usurper queens which Lucy discovers on the other side of the manor house wardrobe.

There’s one more weekend to enjoy this fine show, but be warned: big casts attract sizeable family groups and so tickets are scarce. Also, take note that there are evening performances on Friday and Saturday at 7 and a matinee on Saturday at 2 but no Sunday performance.