Ancram Opera House Offers a Sublime Gift of “The Snow Queen”
There is a glittering, singular beauty to “The Snow Queen” not unlike the purported qualities of a single flake of snow; but how often do you get to see a single flake of snow? Up here we get deluged not just with snow (two feet of it this week which must have made tech week for this show challenging), but also with numerous iterations of Scrooge and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Driving an hour south and walking through the empty streets of Ancram in the biting cold, past the swinging, blinking yellow light on the hill and into the warm, welcoming, inclusive, acoustically perfect Ancram Opera House will prime you for this adaptation of the story from Hans Christian Anderson which has a young barefoot girl, Gerda (an ingenuous Katie Birenboim), go on a quest to find and save her best friend Kai (the mischievous Adam Basco-Mahjeddine) who has been captured and locked away by the Snow Queen with two slivers of ice in his heart and eye.
The play opens with a well-dressed gentleman (the redoubtable local favorite, James Occhino) waking from a nightmare in his armchair. We soon learn that this nightmare has been plaguing him all his life as a Boy (Shawn Adiletta) is seen waking from the same dream shortly thereafter. The Man starts telling the story of The Snow Queen to his younger self and we see the power and usefulness of narrative in shaping our life. The man tells of Gerda and Kai’s encounter with a yellow eyed devil which lodged the splinters, and of Gerda’s quest which brings her into contact with fantastical people and creatures.
First up is an Old Woman (a fabulously arch in an approachable way, Sandy York) who has a fantastic hat and teaches Gerda that her name means garden and to observe all the beauty around us. Next Gerda encounters Crow (the imposing Brian Demar Jones last seen at AOH in the terrific “Brothers Size”) who wants to use his intellect to become famous and helps as best he can to lead Gerda to Bac (a proudly impulsive David Perez-Ribada) a reindeer who has an impressive pair of antlers and an eager willingness to carry Gerda where she needs to go no matter what it costs him. Also met on the journey is an eccentric Lapp Woman (the local legend Sandra Boynton, Artistic Director of Will Kempe’s Players) who wants to write a message on a fish and when the Boy takes over the storytelling and brings us into a dark wood, the Robber Girl played by the delightful Lauren Bell who threatens to stop the show with her punk snarl, anarchic spirit and coonskin cap. Finally, she makes it to the palace of the Snow Queen (the regally untouchable Cheyenne See) and saves Kai with her devotion and embrace which dislodges the splinter in his heart. The splinter of ice in his eye is pushed out by a tear which you may experience as well at this unique, lovely, creative tale.
The book and lyrics are by Barbara Wiechmann and music is by Lisa Dove and it could not be more enchanting. There are odd angles and lines that tickle you and catch in your ear working their way to your heart. When Gerda and Kai first play together the storyteller says “The first time you are that happy, you do not think of time.” The music is, if possible, even lovelier and more appealing. My favorite voice of the night was Katie Birenboim’s clarion purity but the entire cast sounds great and they have a few chorus numbers as well when they referred to their books in hand in what is listed as a staged concert. It is fully and imaginatively staged creating a fantastical land. The music direction and piano accompaniment are by Elizabeth Gerbi with Louis Rizzo on Cello and Emma Piazza on violin.
The set with its white curtains, backdrop and jagged, hand cut ice shapes hanging from the ceiling was by Sarah Edkins with construction by Doug Diaz, lighting delineating many different playing areas and moods in the small space was by Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa. The costumes are eye-poppingly beautiful by Denise Massman all in shades of white with a crisp formality.
Finally, AOH’s co-director Jeffrey Mousseau has directed this marvel and it is a gift that he has returned to this work again and continues to refine his work which has taken on an even greater refinement and clarity over the years. I was extraordinarily lucky enough to play the Man in a student production at Siena six years ago and much like the character waking from his dream it was an unalloyed delight to see this brilliant production unfold in front of me like a remembered dream of happier times. It is their first off-season full-length production free for children and is eminently worthy of your visit to support the great work Ancram Opera House does closing its fourth season. All hail the Queen!