Suitcases hurtle through the air in a joyous game of catch. Dancers line up to mimic a locomotive, arms churning like wheels. A round of leapfrog frolics across a space that, moments before, shuddered beneath the sounds of the Blitz.
Even when it’s depicting an evacuation in World War II Britain — as in the sequence described above — the lyrical new stage adaptation of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” exudes a sense of adventurousness and wonder. And that seems apt for a dramatization of C.S. Lewis’s beloved fantasy novel, which tells of ordinary children who discover magic, danger and redemption on the far side of a piece of furniture. A project that is itself a kind of adventure, representing as it does the first collaboration between Imagination Stage and the Washington Ballet, this world premiere makes canny use of dance to conjure up a vision of mystical marvels, expansive possibilities and invigorating derring-do.
Not that the achievements are exclusively terpsichorean: The production, directed by Janet Stanford, also benefits from a stirring original score by Matthew Pierce and from nifty puppetry, including a marvelous version of the lion Aslan (picture an 8-foot-high, flame-colored kitten romping majestically through zero gravity). Eric Van Wyk, who devised the spare, effective set (including a snow-and-ice backdrop that morphs into flowers) is the puppet designer.
The puppets convey some key plot points in this artfully streamlined version of Lewis’s tale. (Stanford, Kathryn Chase Bryer, David Palmer and Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre are credited with the show’s concept; Stanford wrote the libretto.) In the first scene, puppet Luftwaffe planes evoke the Blitz, which forces the young siblings Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter to flee to a professor’s country house. A silvery unicorn puppet signals that Lucy has crossed through the wardrobe into Narnia, a kingdom condemned to perpetual winter by the evil White Witch — perpetual, that is, until the self-sacrificing king Aslan returns.
Lewis’s novel brims with accounts of movement yielding to stillness and vice versa: A row of mothballed coats cedes to a faun scurrying through a snowfall; the White Witch turns living creatures to stone; a frozen river thaws as Aslan approaches. No wonder, then, that this new adaptation gives so much scope to the choreography by Webre and Palmer (the ballet’s associate artistic director). Actors Justine Moral, Rafael Cuesta, Kate Guesman and Christopher Wilson play Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter in spoken-word scenes; but at other moments, four dancers assume the roles, eloquently conveying the characters’ youthful exuberance — for instance, in a witty mealtime interlude that has the children doing quasi-handstands on a dining table. (Different dancers take the roles at different performances; Francesca Forcella, Daniel Savetta, Laura Chachich and Sam Lariviere played the children at the reviewed matinee). The theater-to-dance and dance-to-theater segues are fluid and elegant; sometimes two versions of a character appear in proximity, to dreamlike effect.
The dance speaks volumes about conflict and enchantment. At the reviewed performance, Morgann Rose brought menacing beauty to the White Witch (Sarah Beth Pfeifer voices the Witch’s lines); Dylan Keane’s crouches and rapacious leaps nailed the personality of the evil wolf Maugrim; and Robert Mulvey’s radiantly spinning Elf communicated the exhilaration of all Narnia as the Witch’s curses fail. Mulvey also lent endearing delicacy to the faun Tumnus, whose befriending of Lucy unfurls as a pas de deux anchored by the characters’ clasped hands.
Among the actors, Moral stands out for her gorgeous singing and her channeling of Lucy’s demure gutsiness; and Michael John Casey, who voices Aslan, aces the eccentricities of the Professor and the rodent-like mannerisms of Mr. Beaver. The able puppeteers include Tracy Ramsay and Betsy Rosen. Kathleen Geldard bolsters the characterizations with her costume designs, which include the sinister hoods and rags worn by the Witch’s slinking monster minions. At presstime Sunday evening, Imagination Stage was closed because of power outages, and its phone lines and Web site were down. Ticket holders are advised to call the theater’s hotline, 301-718-9521 for the latest information.
The production is a reminder that theater, as an art form, is a lot like Lucy’s wardrobe. As an audience member, you enter a confined space, only to discover — if you’re lucky, as you are here — a world of emotion and vivid excitement.
Wren is a freelance writer.
is based on C.S. Lewis’s book. Concept by Kathryn Chase Bryer, David Palmer, Janet Stanford and Septime Webre; directed by Stanford; libretto/lyrics by Stanford, with additional lyrics by Bari Biern; choreography by Webre and Palmer; music, Matthew Pierce; music direction, George Fulginiti-Shakar; lighting design, Colin K. Bills; sound, Chris Baine. With Chong Sun and Carly Wheaton. About 90 minutes. Through Aug. 12 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.