Director Molly Smith fills the Kreeger Theater stage with signifiers of her own love of Alaska, where she has both lived and worked: set designer Todd Rosenthal’s monumental trees and mountain vistas and Emily DeCola’s wonderful life-size puppets of a fox, swan and horse, all gracefully manipulated by puppeteer-performers. Owing to these elements — as well as the show’s almost perverse determination to soften any sense of conflict — this seems to be a musical better suited to fifth-graders than to anyone older. Perhaps a class trip tied to a school’s study of the environment would be in order.
Vanilla, too, is the flavor of the performances Smith coaxes out of Matt Bogart and Christiane Noll, polished pros whose work I’ve often liked but who as Jack and Mabel can’t find much to do with themselves here except fret about the winter pantry running low, and whatnot. Just as bland is a family working a neighboring claim, George (Dan Manning), Esther (Natalie Toro) and son Garrett (Alex Alferov), who act friendly-like but secretly harbor a wish for Jack and Mabel to go home so they can take their land. This notion is explored in exactly one comic song, “Opportunity,” and then kicked into the narrative underbrush.
“Snow Child’s” emotional core is the grief Jack and Mabel can’t shake off, over the death of their newborn, the longing that has brought them out west to live in a cute little cabin for a life for which they are unprepared. It’s during one of her dark reveries by a frozen river that Mabel first sees Faina (Fina Strazza), and we are meant to wonder if the resourceful girl of the outback is a fantasy born of desolation, or simply another lost human being in search of a loving home.
Either way, Strand’s libretto bogs down in the predictable scenes of Jack and Mabel’s struggles with the land, and their irritation with each other. A thin topical overlay to the plot, set in the 1920s — when Alaska was still a U.S. territory, decades away from statehood — has George and Garrett vowing opposition to a federal government that seeks ever more control of the free and rugged way of life they cherish. For this reason, apparently, “Snow Child” has been designated one of Arena’s “power plays,” original works about “power and politics” the company is serving up over multiple seasons. Although a character also has an epiphany about the ethical use of firearms, “Snow Child” is as much about power and politics as “Mary Poppins” is an exposé of conditions for domestic laborers.
A small band conducted by William Yanesh is parked downstage, plunking out Banghart and Stitt’s tunes on banjo, mandolin, fiddle, keyboard and guitar. Its pallid contribution conforms to the impression that solidifies over the course of this disappointing evening: of a journey through snow that leaves no tracks.
Snow Child, book by John Strand, music by Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt; lyrics by Stitt. Directed by Molly Smith. Music direction, William Yanesh; sets, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Joseph P. Salasovich; lighting, Kimberly Purtell; sound, Roc Lee; projections, Shawn Duan; puppets, Emily DeCola and Eric Wright; fight direction, Lewis Shaw. With Dorothy James, David Landstrom, Calvin McCullough. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $40-$90. Through May 20 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. arenastage.org or 202-488-3300.