Staging children’s theater can be a wondrous venture. There’s nothing quite like seeing a child’s eyes light up as imagination is ignited and a fanciful journey begins into a world of emotion and vivid excitement. An appreciation of the wizardry of stagecraft is instilled and deep truths can be revealed in a simple-to-understand yet influential manner.
Zion Theatre Company, a spanking-new endeavor, tackles that challenge with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Beloved for its allegory of Christ’s Atonement and the tale of four children finding inner strength to overtake a powerful foe, the C.S. Lewis classic has been brought to the stage by Joseph Robinette, a playwright with many published page-to-stage creations. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is his most ambitious dramatization, and reviewing his play titles reveals his familiarity with characters of minimal complexity — Goldilocks, the Littlest Angel and Stuart Little.
The playwright's attempt to stay true to the C.S. Lewis source results in a play that is overly long and overly dependent on dialogue. Characters enter, speechify and exit, with a lather, rinse, repeat format. It’s a wordy-wordy venture, without the story’s fantasy, adventure and old-school storytelling.
All the elements are in place. The four Pevensie siblings — Lucy (Cassie Roberts), Edmund (Jack Ottley), Susan (Ashley Stewart) and Peter (Cameron Fuller) — enter the spectacular new world through a wardrobe in the dusty attic. But the story is so truncated that there’s little time for the children to even remark on the wonders of Narnia, and no relationships are built with the otherworldly creatures they encounter. And it’s not quite clear how the problems arise with Edmund that lead to his betrayal of his siblings, although ambrosia and Turkish delight are somehow involved.
Two actors, with innate skills evident, make strong connections to their characters — and with the audience. Wes Tolman makes the faun Mr. Tumnus a dimensional, likable character, and Brinton Wilkins is an engaging Mr. Beaver, who recites the prophetic rhyme that “wrong will be right.”
Offstage sound effects and snippets of music are clever additions, and could have been used more consistently, especially in Act 1. But surely a more creative solution to eliminating props that are no longer needed can be devised than tossing them offstage.
The producers are to be lauded for their effort to open the wardrobe door and invite audiences into the magic and myth of Narnia. There remains something deeply moving about the willingness to sacrifice one’s life to save another, which was the Christian author’s noble motive with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Zion Theatre needs to be allowed to grow into maturity. The company joins “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” with “Swallow the Sun,” a play on the early life of Lewis, into Zion's C.S. Lewis Festival — if two shows can be called a “festival." “Swallow the Sun” was written by Zion Theatre producer Mahonri Stewart, who is also the well-reviewed playwright of “The Opposing Wheel” and “Farewell to Eden.”
After its run at Salt Lake’s Off Broadway Theatre, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” plays Provo’s Castle Outdoor Amphitheater, Aug. 24-Sept. 8. For more information, visit ziontheatrecompany.com.