No musical can survive its own songs.
Snow Child, a brand-new show that just opened at Arena Stage, has a compelling story, decent performances, a delightful set, amazing lights, phenomenal life-size animal puppets, even crops that grow right out of the stage. And it has some of the most pedestrian, forgettable melodies I’ve heard actors sing in quite a while.
But like I said: This is a world premiere. Let’s see what can be done.
Based on a novel you’ll never catch me reading now, Snow Child, adapted by John Strand and directed by Molly Smith, is a curious mix of hardscrabble perseverance and mythic fairy tale. “Oh, you’ll never survive out here — so let’s give you lots and lots of help, and also maybe some magic.” I do like how every character, too, has both darkness and light in them. No heroes or villains here, so you don’t know in advance where anyone will land in the end.
Mabel (Christiane Noll) and Jack (Matt Bogart) are homesteaders living in the Alaskan wilderness in the early 1920s. After their only child died years ago in Pennsylvania, they’ve set out north to try to make it as farmers, battling America’s longest, darkest winters. During the first snow of the season, the couple, who may be drifting apart, build a little child out of snow (the kind Calvin might have crushed while pretending to be a T-Rex). In the morning, the frozen figurine is gone — but the hat and scarf they put on it are next seen on a young girl (Fina Strazza), a wild child of the mountains. This Snow Child, who is kinda like an English-speaking Nell with an even more mysterious backstory, can summon blizzards and has a fox for a best friend. Sure, fine. Rounding out the cast are neighbors Garrett (Alex Alferov), George (Dan Manning), and Esther (Natalie Toro), who are justifiably skeptical the Snow Child, named Faina, even exists.
Is this impossible little human really the snow come to life? Does she represent Mabel and Jack’s lost daughter? I don’t know, but I care a lot more about the answer when people are talking instead of singing.
The music and lyrics from Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt aren’t actively bad, but you forget them as soon as the notes fade from the air. A creative blend of bluegrass-esque and showtune-y, the numbers, though played by clearly talented musicians, simply don’t deliver. Or, if they do, they’re giving out empty boxes. There are a few exceptions from which a better score could be built: “How I See You,” in which Mabel sketches Faina in what looks very much like a modern Moleskine, is a lovely moment for both actresses. “Out Here” is a funny duet that doesn’t get in the way. And “How the Work Gets Done” is an inoffensive bit-of-business tune that serves as one of those time-passing montages musicals love. The rest are duds. Once or twice, I thought I heard one trying to break into “Your Daddy’s Son” from Ragtime, which would have been interesting. During a soaring aria that should have represented Snow Child‘s emotional climax, I saw the man sitting next to me check his watch.
It’s shame, because both the actors and the technical crew are working their butts off. Strazza shows a presence the vast majority of child actors lack. Noll and Bogart are completely committed, both on their own and in scenes together. And the other three rise above some fairly corny dialogue to create believable supporting characters. Kimberly Purtell’s lights will take your breath away. The actors must have felt truly lucky when they saw her aurora borealis effect. Todd Rosenthal’s set and Joseph P. Salasovich’s costumes are ready for their northern exposure. And the puppetry work from designer Emily DeCola elicited spontaneous applause. Three cheers for all.
But there’s just no such thing as a great musical with mediocre songs.