C.S. Lewis’ most famous novel, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” is a tale told in epic scale, full of magical creatures, inconceivable dangers and one of literature’s most memorable saviors.
The movie of the same name imitates the book’s style, piling on the special effects while smoothing out some of the back-story for the sake of time.
At the Theatre of Youth this month, an entirely different sort of interpretation comes to life – an epic tale remade as a folk song.
This lion, witch and wardrobe, and the four children caught up in the adventure, are pared down to their essence. Let’s call it “The Ballad of Narnia,” ignited by the threat of the London Blitz in a dramatic scene that shows the young audience how much excitement can be created by a few well-placed lighting effects and some flashlights.
Four fine young actors – Jordan Levin, Jessica Wegrzyn, Renee Landrigan and Adam Yellen – take on all the roles. They start as troubadours and settle in as the siblings Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund, who are moved to the safety …. and supreme boredom …. of an English country house.
The wardrobe that is the passage to Narnia comes in the form of two tall ladders that swing open on the stage. White drapes and blue lights become an icy world as Lucy first enters and then, to the delight of the audience, Levin reappears as Mister Tumnus, the helpful faun.
The young audience can relate to Tumnus, as he has difficulty imagining where the country of War Drobe is that has delivered the human girl to his humble cave, and from there the action alternates between fast-forwarding Lewis’ chapters and pausing for narrative exposition to fill in the blanks.
Wegrzyn does double duty as the White Witch, while Yellen is suitably petulant as selfish Edmund, who considers selling out his family to her for Turkish delight.
The 7-year-old sitting with me particularly liked the children’s encounter with Mrs. Beaver, played with eager helpfulness by Landrigan in a funny scene that has her overloading the children with goodies while explaining the ins and outs of Narnia to them.
Things move fast from there, and the narrative could be hard for kids to follow if they haven’t already heard or read the book, or at least seen the film.
Oddly, while Aslan is talked up as being a powerful force in Narnia, he gets little stage time compared with the rest of the inhabitants. And while imagination works to fill out the other characters, Aslan’s costume falls short.
As Mister Tumnus, Levin has horns and a furry cape and it works well.
For Aslan, he has to evoke the King of Narnia with nothing more than a furry wig that is more reminiscent of Tina Turner’s haystack hairdo than a lion’s mane. A lion in a plaid shirt and jeans is not quite as much lion as we would like.
The script also rewrites and weakens the power of Aslan’s sacrifice, when he lays down his life for another, only to rise again. Lewis wrote it as a Christian metaphor. In this song, it is more simple magic, as the resurrected Aslan tells the children that if you die for someone you love, death works backwards.
TOY can be counted on to paint vivid scenes using little more than lights and sound effects, and that was the case again here. “Trees” grow up the sides of the theater, birds can be heard as spring arrives in Narnia and the battle that rages in the final confrontation is suitably explosive.
The show, which has less whimsy and more difficult emotions than some productions at TOY, is recommended for children ages 7 and up. Running time is about 75 minutes, with a chance to talk to the actors after the show.
Kids will enjoy it more if they have some familiarity with the story before they go, and, if they are like the kids I know, they will want to hear or read the book again when they get home.
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”
3 stars (out of four)
A pared-down version of the C.S. Lewis children’s classic.
Where: Theatre of Youth, Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St. Through April 3 (dark Easter weekend).