Building a New Life in Snow Child
Arena Stage presents a musical vision of 1920s Alaska.
"Just keep your eyes on the things that are true," says a character in a song titled "The Things That Are True" from Snow Child, the upbeat world-premiere musical at Arena Stage, a coproduction with Alaska's Perseverance Theatre. And indeed, being able to discern only "things that are true" is the central concern of all the characters in Snow Child, although they disagree about the meaning of "true."
John Strand's adaptation of Eowyn Ivey's novel, Snow Child takes place in the Alaska Territory in the 1920s. The situation for a young couple, Mabel (Christiane Noll) and Jack (Matt Bogart), is particularly hard. Mabel and Jack are newcomers to Alaska, having left their earlier lives in order to start anew. Having lost an unborn child, they are trying to re-create the excitement they used to feel about life and each other.
But Jack, who is not a farmer or trapper, had no idea how difficult living off the land would be. Mabel, who is an artist, knew even less about farming in one of the harshest environments on earth. The couple is surrounded by neighbors who have been living in the wilderness, and adapting to it, for a much longer time, including George (Dan Manning); his wife, Esther (Natalie Toro); and their son, Garrett (Alex Alferov). This family knows how to deal with endless punishing cold and excruciatingly long winters. While Mabel is alone walking in the woods one day, she meets a young girl, the Snow Child, named Faina (Fina Strazza), an apparent wood-sprite in human form who never travels without her white Arctic fox. It is the beginning of a friendship that Mabel hopes will turn into a familial relationship, with the Snow Child becoming the child she and Jack never had.
Noll is excellent as Mabel, an idealistic woman who knows she has a lot of love to give. Her bright soprano begins the musical, making it clear that Mabel would be happy to be swallowed up by the ice in a frozen river, but then, when she hears someone singing, making it equally clear that she doesn't want to give up just yet.
Bogart is delightful as Jack, who looks fit, strapping, and willing to take on the physical challenges of living in this wild territory, despite his lack of hunting or trapping skills. Bogart's "Moosehunt Breakdown" is one of the funniest numbers in the musical. In it, Bogart gets to display what the real Alaskan man is all about: strength, brute force, and accuracy with a gun. Strazza brings an enigmatic otherworldliness to Faina, playing the young girl as a charmer who has magical powers and can help achieve miracles, but who also can be cruel and unpredictable.
George, Esther, and Garrett come to Mabel and Jack's log cabin for a party, singing a lively number, "Grateful," in which they individually speak up for the things they appreciate. Manning is convincing as George, a hefty fellow who used to own a still and who dances a lively jig. Toro is equally credible as his rough-hewn wife. Alferov is extraordinary as Garrett, a fiddle-playing trapper who undergoes a total personality transformation when Faina punishes him for hurting one of nature's creatures.
Director Molly Smith keeps the action moving briskly. Composers Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt create a bluegrass-like blend of songs for fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, and upright bass. While many of those songs are lighthearted and lively, there are a few well-paced peaceful numbers that parallel the more reflective moments of the story. The neatly balanced musical elements offer views on both the positive and negative effects of these characters living off the grid.
Set designer Todd Rosenthal creates a changeable wasteland, illuminating summer and winter in Alaska with mountains, trees, and even dramatic snow tornadoes. Puppet designer Emily DeCola creates charming, lifelike puppets to fill out the parts of Fox, Swan, and Plow Horse (puppeteered by Dorothy James, David Landstrom, and Calvin McCullough, respectively). Lighting designer Kimberly Purtell creates a particularly marvelous moment featuring the Northern Lights.
Snow Child deals in magic, and its message is clearly available only to those who believe that lives can improve. Some may find the musical's tone relentlessly cheerful, despite the sad events that happen throughout it. But as the aforementioned song "The Things That Are True" implies, one of the things that is most "true" in Snow Child is the ability to change for the better. And can there ever really be too much optimism in the world?