Theater Review: “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” at Imagination Stage

This gorgeous collaboration between the Bethesda company and the Washington Ballet is a treat for kids and adults alike.

By: Jane Horwitz

An inspired collaboration between Imagination Stage and the Washington Ballet, this gorgeous new musical adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe offers a heady blend of dance, acting, singing, and grand-scale puppetry. Framing the cast’s uniformly strong and synchronized performances are dreamlike scenery, eye-pleasing props, and a highly effective, even cinematic, score.

The young children down the row from us at Imagination Stage had no problem following the narrative of the show (recommended for ages five and older), even as we lost the thread from time to time. They were likely familiar with the plot from the books and/or the recent film adaptations of the classic “Narnia” stories by C.S. Lewis. Both they and we were entranced by what we saw and heard onstage in Bethesda. And they appeared to have no trouble at all accepting the production’s central concept, in which each of the four child protagonists is played by an actor/singer and a dancer.

The siblings—Peter (Christopher Wilson), Susan (Kate Guesman), Lucy (Justine Moral), and Edmund (Rafael Cuesta) with Aslan (puppeteers Michael John Casey, Betsy Rosen, and Tracy Ramsay) in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Most important, the production’s co-creators never talk down to their young audience. As directed by Imagination Stage’s artistic head, Janet Stanford, and choreographed by the Washington Ballet’s leader, Septime Webre, and his associate artistic director, David Palmer, a great range of feelings fills the stage—wonder, anguish, betrayal, forgiveness, redemption, triumph—none of them watered down.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells the tale of four siblings in World War II-era England who are moved from London to the countryside, where they discover an antique wardrobe that acts as a doorway to the magical land of Narnia. The show begins with the sound of air raid sirens as actors carry miniature German bombers on sticks across the stage. Lucy (Justine Moral), Edmund (Rafael Cuesta), and their older siblings, Peter (Christopher Wilson) and Susan (Kate Guesman), are sent out of London for their own safety. It’s at this juncture that four dancers first appear as the children’s interior selves, dressed the same and carrying identical suitcases. Through the rest of the show, they dance the characters’ feelings—in classic ballet solos, pas de deux, and pas de quatres—when words fail. Believe it or not, this is rarely confusing.

The children arrive at the country home of the kindly Professor (Michael John Casey) and his stern housekeeper, Mrs. McCreedy (danced by Francesca Forcella at press night; the dance roles are all covered by two performers, who will alternate throughout the run). The younger children, Lucy and Edmund, go through the wardrobe first and discover Narnia; Lucy befriends a faun named Mr. Tumnus, and Edmund is co-opted by the evil White Witch (danced by Forcella when we saw it, voiced by Sara Beth Pfeifer). When they return through the wardrobe and bring their older siblings to Narnia, they learn of the White Witch, Edmund’s betrayal, and that Mr. Tumnus has been taken prisoner. They also meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Casey and Pfeifer), who tell the children they must seek out the great lion Aslan, the embodiment of goodness and courage, who will tell them what to do. This leads to an epic battle: the children and Aslan versus the White Witch and her minions.

A paragraph must be devoted to the gorgeousness of Aslan, who makes his entrance in act two. He is an imposing nine-foot puppet made of wire and gold cloth, his body and legs operated by two quite visible puppeteers (Betsy Rosen and Tracy Ramsay) and his head and roar controlled by the always-stellar Casey. The genius of designer Eric Van Wyk’s creation lies in how truly leonine the puppet’s appearance and movements are, from his running gait to his zoologically perfect paws. His head—part abstract metal sculpture, part king of beasts—has grandeur to spare.

Van Wyk also designed the lovely scenery, which seems lavish while actually being rather spare. His scenic triumph is the wardrobe itself. When the children pass through it into Narnia, the top lintel floats upward, the doors disappear, snowy curtains descend, the lighting (by Colin K. Bills) shifts, and the children emerge through the curtains into Narnia. It is a magical moment. The costumes, by Kathleen Geldard, evoke character effortlessly between the actor/singers and the dancing versions of them. The children’s mother, for example, appears in a fur coat. The dancing incarnation of her, as she sings farewell at the station, has a little fur collar and hat.

Imagination Stage’s Stanford and Kathryn Chase Bryer worked with Washington Ballet’s Webre and Palmer on the overarching concept. Stanford wrote the libretto and the rather somber lyrics, with additional lyrics by Bari Biern. Composer Matthew Pierce didn’t craft treacly, hummable tunes for this story. The songs and background score use lots of chromaticism and occasionally, in the most harrowing moments, screeching strings. You can’t hum Pierce’s score, but it works.

Lewis intended his fables as a Christian allegory for young people, but children brought up in non-Christian traditions will identify with the characters, too. And everyone can enjoy this complex theatrical concept that comes together—and comes across—with delightful ease.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is at Imagination Stage through August 12. Running time is about 90 minutes, including one intermission. For ages five and older. Tickets ($10 to $27) are available via Imagination Stage’s website.