It certainly isn't a traditional book musical, since it lacks even a rudimentary dance element and sustained dialogue scenes. Yet, it isn't an opera either. Nor is it a children's show, since the required focus on Michael Smith's often-sophisticated lyrics and Frank Galati's generally static staging make it too mature for children under nine years old.
"Hmm. Difficult. Very difficult. There's talent, oh my goodness, yes," the Sorting Hat said of Harry, and so it is with The Snow Queen. Galati is a double Tony Award winner for adapting and directing The Grapes of Wrath; Smith is a widely known and respected composer-lyricist (among other projects, he wrote the incidental music for The Grapes of Wrath); and the visual design concepts -- scenery, puppets, diorama -- are by Blair Thomas, co-founder of the award-winning mask-and-puppet Redmoon Theater and a member of the design faculty at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Indeed, there may be too much talent among the collaborators, each of whose method of telling a story differs from the others. Smith creates wonderfully clever and engaging songs, but each one is a stand-alone piece rather than part of a larger theme. Thomas, who has a unique visual style, prefers to illustrate only the peak moments in a story through puppetry, mask, and moving diorama techniques, ignoring the narrative in-between. Galati has a strong linear sense and a word-based literary aesthetic; but in his directing choices, he embraces all types of theater methodologies and firmly believes that anything can be staged. Moreover, in this instance, Galati has left the storytelling choices almost entirely to his creative partners.
That story tells of a Copenhagen boy, Kai (Andrew Keltz), who is enchanted by the Snow Queen and is taken to her North Pole lair. Kai's best friend, the neighbor girl Gerda, encounters various picaresque adventures on her way to save Kai involving a witch, a princess, a helpful raven, an army of snowflake soldiers and even some talking reindeer. These adventures, plus the contrast of icy winter with aflower-filled summer, offer Thomas and his associates opportunities to create a nine-foot high Snow Queen, two raven puppets with articulated wings and heads, and flower bud hand puppets that burst into bloom.
Running just an hour and forty-five minutes, including intermission, the show offers 23 songs played and sung by a company of nine (plus three kyogen-like puppeteers), most of whom double as instrumentalists and singers. The show is scored for two keyboards, a half-dozen guitars, mandolin, autoharp, drums, harmonica and concertina, and the show's musical styles include ballad, anthem, talking blues, polka, boogie-woogie, and various other pop-folk amalgams.
A skilled and prolific lyricist, Smith by turns waxes reflective (Nobody blames the North Wind in Denmark/We all know it's part of God's plan") and silly, offering a talking reindeer who rhymes shirt, yurt, hurt, herd, word, and turd in the course of one song. Fortunately, the music is superbly rendered both instrumentally and vocally.
Still, you keep waiting for something more to happen; for the story to fill in the blanks, go deeper and enlarge the characters; one waits for The Snow Queen to engage rather than merely charm. Alas, charm is all there is, and it's a whimsical, eccentric charm at that.
In the end, the show is like a lovely but curious hand-made Christmas ornament. Actually, it's a cantata. There, the Sorting Hat has figured it out at last.