Theater Review - Andersen adaptations put Hans across Atlanta

At the end of Disney's The Little Mermaid, Ariel becomes a walking, talking human and weds the prince under a rainbow. That's not how Hans Christian Andersen would remember it.

The Danish author's original version concludes with the prince marrying someone else and the mermaid throwing herself into the sea, where she dissolves into foam and becomes a spirit. Many of Andersen's classics follow the example of the Brothers Grimm and offer harsh cautionary tales in sharp contrast to today's uplifting messages for young ears. Shaping themes to fit contemporary concerns is part of the process of handing stories down through generations.

The Center for Puppetry Arts' Sam the Lovesick Snowman and Synchronicity Performance Group's The Snow Queen each offer charming versions of Hans Christian Andersen tales, yet espouse opposite philosophies of adaptation. For Snowman, the Center for Puppetry Arts takes enormous liberties with Andersen's text in the name of having fun and connecting to audiences. Synchronicity steeps its version of The Snow Queen in Scandinavian traditions close to the source. Both shows approach Andersen from different directions, yet take on comparable themes of romantic attachment and obsession.

Sam the Lovesick Snowman marks Jon Ludwig's third world premiere children's play of 2008, following the wildly imaginative Duke Ellington's Cat and Cinderella Della Circus. In a typically comic touch that will appeal to all audiences, puppeteers Dolph Amick and Amy Rush introduce the play as a pair of Fargo-accented Midwesterners who can't imagine why the audience is waiting around "in the snow." Soon enough, they recount the tale of a snowman named Sam, who stands outside a small house, chats with put-upon Alice the dog and becomes friends with the "snow-woman" on the hill.

Sam falls hard for a forbidden object of desire: the stove he can see through the window. Without realizing the impossibility of a relationship, Sam proves so tantalized by the stove that he ignores others and lets life pass him by. He even dreams a tango number that casts the stove as a femme fatale. In a kid-oriented context, Snowman delivers a message about unhealthy fixations and depression, although it builds to a more upbeat ending than Andersen did.

Primarily, Snowman demonstrates Ludwig's trademark sense of play. The dog sings a rousing polka number about the cat and croons "Howl at the Moon" like a country-western singer. Snowman includes enough grown-up gags to keep adults amused, including a reference to the song "We Will Rock You." At one point, a hungry wolf assails the dog and declares, "I'll huff! And I'll puff! And – Oh god, I've become my father."

Despite wintry Midwestern connections, Snowman feels a world away from The Snow Queen, which may be one of the year's most vivid and lovely family plays. Minnesotan folk singer Ruth MacKenzie wrote and composed The Snow Queen and evokes the sounds and lore of mythic Scandinavia. Some of the lyrics include Finnish words, which give an ageless, otherworldly quality to the action.

The Snow Queen presents a quest story with Joseph Campbell-style archetypes, including witches and robbers. When the cruel, icy Snow Queen (Sarah Onsager) accidentally shatters her magic mirror, a shard lands in the eye of young villager Kai (Nick Arapoglou). The mirror's enchantment causes Kai to perceive things as their opposite, so he hatefully rejects his beloved friend Gerda (Tracy Vaden Moore). When the Snow Queen whisks Kai away in her wagon, the village believes him to be drowned, but Gerda embarks on a magical journey to find him.

Directed by Clint Thornton, The Snow Queen provides the ideal way to introduce children to live theater as a narrative form as robust as TV or movies. The production uses video projection for such dynamic backdrops as dreams of flying, cracking mirrors and swarming bees. A revolving platform allows the actors to simulate dancing, skating, sailing on boats and falling through thin ice. JC Long plays lovely melodies on the violin and performs two puppetry characters: a crow and a reindeer (the latter via a styled mask along the lines of Equus).

Synchronicity shows enormous respect for its young audiences without pandering to them. The Snow Queen features flashes of comic relief, particularly from the talking crow and some self-absorbed flowers ("What do you expect? I am a Narcissus."). But it doesn't hide from grim realities, either. A couple of characters die or otherwise sacrifice themselves, and one even gets a funeral song. Anchored by Moore's vulnerable yet stirring performance, Gerda's devotion in the face of hardship and especially Kai's hostility, conveys the painful possibilities of the failure of love.

MacKenzie's songs capture both the catchy rhythms of folk songs and the intricacies of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway compositions. With 14 performers, dreamy set design and vibrant music, The Snow Queen transports its audience to a realm that feels magical. Where Sam the Lovesick Snowman is the kind of show that gives cute a good name, The Snow Queen transcends the merely cute to offer a kind of timeless beauty that feels even older than Andersen's first telling.

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