WASHINGTON, D.C. – The new musical, “Snow Child,” is onstage at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. through May 20. While interesting with its storyline of a grieving couple who find hope from a young girl who transforms their lives in the Alaska wilderness in the 1920s, never seems to hit the emotional ball out of the park.
Directed by Arena Stage's Artistic Director Molly Smith, in association with Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, the play features a solid cast that could be more effective if the characters were more developed. Presently, the cast nearly gets upstaged by the show’s incredible puppets and impressive set, design and projection.
Additionally, as a musical, the show’s music, by Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt, features no real show-stopping numbers. Performed by an onstage band that includes a banjo, mandolin, fiddle, keyboard and guitar, one toe taps along to the upbeat country and bluegrass sounds, but no one song remained a constant in my head.
The musical is based on Eowyn Ivey’s 2011 Alaskan novel and focuses on a couple who are mourning the loss of their unborn daughter and who move from Pennsylvania to Alaska to start a new life. Homesteaders, they stake a claim and attempt to farm the land, but after one harsh winter, the husband Jack (Matt Bogart) is not sure they can survive another year.
Mabel (Christiane Noll), Jack’s despondent wife, is also unsure, but mainly because of their now seemingly loveless relationship. When the play opens, Mabel is traversing across a perilous river of cracking ice, asking it to take her out of her misery. The sound of a child’s voice, however, floats through the wilderness and causes Mabel to return to the shore.
Later, when a mysterious young girl, Faina, accompanied by a fox, appears out of nowhere, Mabel at first is unsure if her mind is playing tricks. However, when she and Jack, in a spontaneous moment of play, make and adorn a snow child with Mabel’s hat and scarf that later go missing and reappears on the mysterious Faina, Mabel feels that she and Jack have renewed hope to make a family.
As Jack and Mabel, Bogart and Noll are vocally impressive, with voices rich in emotion and range. Still, their relationship as a couple seems to need more development. For instance, why has the loss of their daughter driven them further apart rather than closer?
As Faina, 13-year-old Fina Strazza is impressive as the mysterious wild child who we are not sure is a magical being or a lost child who has somehow adapted to the harsh Alaskan wilderness. Initially, she does not speak and dismisses Mabel’s attempt to mother and protect her. When she does warm up to Mabel and appears before Jack also, the audience feels that this family premise could work out.
Lurking in the background, however, is a legend about a mysterious show child who disappears in the spring when the snow melts. This brings up another issue with character development. When Faina later conjures up a snowstorm to punish Garrett (Alex Alferov), a neighboring young man who viciously kills her fox, we are left not knowing again whether Faina is real or imaginary.
“Snow Child” deals with a variety of plot themes, including gender issues, guns and the American government’s interference in the Alaskan wilderness by favoring corporations that negatively a theme around guns. Garrett’s parents, George and Esther, delightfully played by Dan Manning and Natalie Toro, bring up many of these issues as local homesteaders who befriend Jack and Mable, but who believe the couple cannot stick it out.
The musical features stunning puppet animals, that include Faina’s fox;, Jack’s plow horse, and an elegant swan and Emily Decola deserves special mention for her life-like work on the property. Set designer Todd Rosenthal and production designer Shawn Duan create an Alaskan wilderness complete with a rotating log cabin, mountain vistas and huge trees that totally transport one to Alaska.
As a new production, “Snow Child,” is still a work in progress, but with a bit of tweaking, has high hopes for a great future.