The Snow Queen: A New Musical
San Jose Repertory
A troll creates a mirror that reflects the ugliness of the world, and when it is shattered the pieces rain down on the earth. A boy named Kai is struck by the shards, and he becomes cruel and cold to his grandmother and his best friend, a little girl named Gerta. The only thing that remains beautiful to him is the snowflakes, and when the Snow Queen comes and offers to take him to her palace, he agrees to go. Gerta travels the world, suffering much along the way, to retrieve her friend and bring him home again.
I wonder if it was advantageous for this musical’s world premiere to coincide with the debut of Disney’s Frozen. Both stories are adaptations of the same Hans Christian Andersen story, although the stage show is faithful to the original material while Disney barely glances at it. But while the Disney movie might have stirred up more interest in the story, causing more people to watch the musical, it also invites comparisons between the two shows. I’m going to try to avoid doing that, because the two musicals are very different from each other with completely different stories and musical styles, but I may slip up. We’ll see.
The Snow Queen suffers from what I think of the SJ Rep curse: the San Jose Rep’s theater has absolutely dreadful acoustics. It’s fine for plays, and I think that un-miked singers would sound OK. But throw in electrical equipment and you get horrible distorted sound with bonus feedback. It’s horrible for musicals, and makes it difficult to evaluate certain things, like the vocal performance of the actors, because what you hear in the speakers isn’t necessarily a true representation of their sound. So I’m just going to assume that under normal circumstances, these actors are all decent singers, and it is a misfortune that the venue isn’t kind to them.
The music itself? It’s a bit of a mess. There are thirty-one songs in this musical, which frankly is at least ten songs too many. There’s no consistent sound throughout the show – there’s a traditional Broadway showstopper, some ballads, a punk rock song, something vaguely Celtic, some folk rock. Some of it recalled Spring Awakening, but that may simply be because several of the actors previously performed in that musical at SJ Rep or with other companies. A lot of the songs simply slid on by without making an impression, but I’ll try to talk about the ones I can remember.
Hands down, the best song of the show is “Flying”, the song which closes the first act as Gerda and a Crow fly toward the castle of a princess, where the Crow is certain he saw Kai. How do we know it’s so good? Well, for starters, they brought it back to close the second act, too. It has a very poppy, ear-worm quality which could work well as a single. Granted, the only lyrics I can remember now are
Flying, flying like the birds in the sky
But the fact that I remember anything at all puts it leagues above the rest of the soundtrack.
“Aurora”, a song sung by a reindeer about the aurora borealis, has a pretty tune, but some poorly conceived lyrics in the middle – the reindeer is just naming off colors, one after another – prevent it from being a winner. Well, that and the song is literally a showstopper – while the reindeer stands at center stage crooning about lights in the sky, Gerda just stares at him and for three minutes the action has ceased. I’m of the school that a musical shouldn’t have a song unless it moves the story forward, and I would have found the song tolerable if the reindeer was at least walking along and, well, moving Gerda to her destination. I guess that’s a staging issue, not a problem with the song itself, but like I said, one verse is literally a list of colors. Even if I had the voice of Idina Menzel, would you want to hear me singing Crayola colors as I stand in the middle of the stage?
Another DOA song was “I Want That”, sung by the Robber Girl about how when she wants things, she gets them. This punk rock song was whiny and awful and unnecessary - the Robber Girl doesn’t need to sing about what freakin’ pill she is when two minutes of dialogue already established this basic character trait.
The Snow Queen was a talented vocalist – the only cast member that I think had the power to sing without the microphones, if she so chose – and her violin skills were both surprising and impressive. But the songs she sang weren’t memorable at all, which is a pity, all the more so because I needed something to distract me from the fact that she looked like a bleached out Glinda the Good Witch.
Most of the costumes trended towards a Victorian steampunk aesthetic, although Gerda’s dress looked straight off the set of Little House on the Prairie. It matched the starkness of the set, which was stocked with minimalist scaffolding and a giant projection screen.
Ah, projection screens, you are my theatrical arch-nemesis. Sometimes, they can be pretty cool, but in this production I found the screen to be distracting. The projections of snowflakes during the Snow Queen’s songs looked like they were projects from a beginner’s animation class, and the effects achieved during “Aurora” could have likely been done with just the stage lights. Well, perhaps not. I don’t actually know much about stage direction, but it often seemed the projection screen was a crutch that prevented more creative use of lighting.
It’s a relatively small cast, with ten actors filling forty roles, so there were a lot of costume changes. I think the fact that the songs are sung by the same vocalists, even though they are meant to be different characters, contributes to the fact that the songs become indistinguishable. Perhaps some judicious trimming of Andersen’s character list would have helped things out. For example, the troll opens the story by singing about his magic mirror – but was he necessary? It would have been so much easier to have the Snow Queen or the Grandmother introduce the magic mirror. I guess I’m just nitpicking. Everyone’s trying so hard that I find myself wanting the show to succeed, but in the end it just wasn’t that good. Perhaps with some serious revisions and rewriting, though, The Snow Queen could be rescued. I’ve heard that early versions of Wicked were something of a mess, and look how wildly popular that show is now!
Man, I could sure use more stripes.