The Vortex Repertory Company's 'Sleeping Beauty' shows the company in a playful mood, delivering a musical adaptation that is fanciful, lighthearted, and disarmingly sweet
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., March 25, 2005
The Vortex, through April 2
Running Time: 1 hr, 35 min
The prince has made his way through the thicket of briars surrounding the enchanted castle, searched its silent halls, and finally found his beauty, still sleeping after a century under a faery's spell. Of course, this being the tale that it is and he being the prince, his next move is one we know. Yes, he swings his guitar around from his back and sings her a folksy wake-up ballad.
The world premiere of Sleeping Beauty from the Vortex Repertory Company shows the company in a playful mood. Artistic director Bonnie Cullum, who co-wrote and directed the show, and her musical collaborator Content Love Knowles have shaken loose much of the more, shall we say, Grimm aspects of the familiar tale not to mention the darker shadings common to Vortex's own work and concocted a musical adaptation that is fanciful, light of heart even to the point of silliness, and disarmingly sweet. They give us a land called Avalía, proclaimed as perfect by its people to a bossa nova beat (or is it reggae?); where its newborn princess requires something like 20 names to capture all that is truly exceptional about her (names chosen in a bouncy patter song full of suggestions ranging from Goneril and Hecuba to Britney and Tallulah); where that royal deb who, for convenience's sake, comes to be known as Briar Rose grows up so stifled in her regal home that she comes to sing the blues; where even the dead princes impaled on the thorns outside the castle where Briar Rose naps for 100 years get to sing backup; and where Prince Charming channels his inner Dylan.
The creators' merry, airy approach suffuses the production with a childlike spirit. At times it calls to mind kids playing dress-up: Cullum putting on the conventions of the old-school Broadway musical, Knowles trying on assorted musical styles. They're borrowing outfits they don't usually wear, and, as with kids, even when something's not a natural fit, it's still a kick just for them to try it on. It's fun to see these artists playing with traditional musical comedy and they do manage to bring a little style and skill to it.
Not that anyone is likely to mistake this musical fairy tale for Once Upon a Mattress. The show has too much of that Vortex stamp: in Ann Marie Gordon's set, drawing from nature and ancient culture, the curving shell of the nautilus and the intricate scroll-work of the Celts; in Kari Perkins' costumes, bridging the traditional and fantastical, Renaissance finery and wings, leaves, and glitter; in the presentation of the fae's gifts of self-reliance, empathy, strength, lustiness, and other character traits to Briar Rose, a theatrical ritual akin to those in Vortex's Holy Well, Sacred Flame and Dark Goddess productions. As always, the artists in the Vortex are following their own path even as they're challenging our ideas of what that path is.
Therein lies the message at the heart of this Sleeping Beauty: You don't have to follow the story that someone else has written for you; you can write your own even if it goes against what people expect of you. The baby Briar Rose is cursed with death by the spurned faery Ixlamere a stormy Wendy Goodwin, not really malevolent, yet plenty fearsome but then Sanastra of the Pond a bubbly, curious creature as portrayed by Melissa Vogt rewrites the curse into a hundred-year nap. Stewart Johnson's King, who's a bit of a goof, locks down his daughter to keep her from doing anything that might set the curse in motion. But an understandably bored Briar Rose (Emma McNairy nails the eye-rolling tedium of the teen) rewrites his house arrest and so finds the castle's last spinner at her wheel. The girl falls into a long slumber (with McNairy indeed a sleeping beauty), but it's eventually broken by Dave, a prince who writes his own ballads. (Philip Gibbs penned the character's songs himself.) He and Briar Rose could settle for the "happily ever after" that's typically tacked onto their story, but they defer that so they can write more adventures for their lives. It's an intriguing alternative to what we get in the traditional tale of the Sleeping Beauty, and the same may be said for this pleasing production overall.