How does one critique a children's show? Should the reviewer attempt to look at things from a child's perspective? (Adults often underestimate the intelligence of youth.) Should the reviewer bring a young person along? (Kids aren't always easy to come by, and don't necessarily make the best company at evening shows.) Or should the critic try to keep an open mind, gauging the reactions of those nearby while ultimately feeling certain that a good production is easily spotted, no matter what its intended age group? Urban Stages is presenting holiday fare in the form of a modern, multi-culti version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. Adapted (or, really, mostly rewritten) by Stanton Wood, the story still centers on best friends Kay and Gerda. But instead of being neighbors playing in a rose garden in a European ghetto, they are neighbors engaging in playful rap battles in a New York City ghetto.
Kay's parents fight a lot, which makes him sad and angry, and vulnerable to a magical glass shard that falls out of the sky and into his eye. The shard makes him see only the negative side of things, so, frustrated because Gerda doesn't understand his pain, he runs away with the equally troubled Snow Queen. When Gerda notices that Kay is missing, she starts a long southward journey to find him. Along the way, she meets a mischievous, anthropomorphic river; a samba-dancing beach goddess; a robber maiden; and a reindeer, all of whom help her reach the Snow Queen's domicile at the South Pole.
The costumes are colorful, the puppets are inventive, and the actors are competent enough, so why did this production seem lacking? The original story was a quirky tale about a little girl's quiet faith in a Christian God, which gives her the power to cross the globe to find her best friend. Wood's version replaces this faith with a vague notion about the power of love; strange, then, that this show doesn't have much heart. The bits of story and character kept from Andersen's tale don't mesh with the new parts, and there was no consistency of tone. It came across like a puzzle completed with two different sets of pieces.
And yet, the highlight of the evening (based on audience reaction) was a new scene about Gerda bumping into the Giant Squid in the Lake. Designer Eric Wright has crafted an endearingly goofy, mobile squid puppet, which puppeteer/actor Ned Massey endows with a crusty, lovably offbeat personality. Adults and children laughed at this surprising character, which didn't perform in that kids' theater declamatory style, and certainly didn't try to teach tolerance or any other message. Granted, this encounter was supposed to be a bit of comic relief to break up an otherwise earnest evening, but why does "earnest" have to exclude "fun"?
At $30 per ticket, this is certainly a wallet-friendlier alternative to the traditional "Radio City Christmas Spectacular"