"Are they real people?" whispered a child sitting behind me. It's not a silly question because the marionettes in the New Victory Theater's production of Sleeping Beauty are so visually captivating that you might wonder the same thing. The puppeteers of the Carlo Colla & Sons Marionette Company, from Milan, Italy, are masters of their craft, and they do indeed bring their marionettes to life. Since its founding more than 150 years ago, Colla & Sons has earned a reputation as one of the world's premier puppet-theater companies. This stunning production, which runs through November 10, gives life to an array of 165 marionettes (including a puppet puppy) in a show that should be on the calendars of moms and dads who want to give their children an unforgettable theater experience.
The script, adapted by Eugenio Monti Colla from Charles Perrault's well-known version of the fairy tale, tells the story of a long childless king and queen who eventually have a daughter, Aurora. Six fairy godmothers are invited to bestow their blessings on the baby, but one overlooked (and wicked) fairy, Misery, arrives uninvited and prophesies that when Aurora turns 16, she will prick her finger and die. The young fairy Harmony, however, intervenes and changes the curse from death to 100 years of sleep. The king orders all sharp objects to be destroyed, but it seems you can't change destiny. At 16, Aurora seals her fate by pricking her finger on a rose thorn and falling into a century-long slumber. Harmony causes all the inhabitants of the kingdom to fall asleep as well, until the day when Prince Desire comes along at the end of 100 years and wakes up Aurora with a kiss. The kingdom awakens, celebrations ensue, and all live happily ever after.
Kids will be mesmerized by the marionettes (gorgeously costumed by Eugenio Monti Colla) that act out this story while 10 voice actors deliver lines, some of them in verse, behind the scenes. The narration and dialogue retain the elevated tone of a classic fairy tale, and though the language might go over the heads of some youngsters, it's fine at the New Victory to whisper questions to grown-ups when you need help understanding. In addition to a solid retelling of the story, this production features a dynamic and detailed set (designed by Franco Citterio) as well as music from Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty.
The show lasts for about 95 minutes. (At the end of the hour-long Act 1, a budding theater critic in the row ahead of me noted, "It's pretty long, isn't it?") Yet the show's frequent scene changes keep the pace brisk and entertaining, and the young ones are so engrossed that there is little fussing or fidgeting in seats. Applause and cheers come at the end when a host of storybook characters arrives for the wedding of Princess Aurora and Prince Desire, followed by screams of delight when the scenery rises into the flies to reveal the 10 puppeteers high in the air above the stage. It's hard to imagine a more memorable show for kids, especially one that combines masterful puppet-theater, intelligent storytelling, classical music, and poetry in a brilliant full-length production that both challenges and delights.