The delicate rhythms of grief are explored in Imagination Stage’s affecting The Dancing Princesses, featuring a winsome score by Christopher Youstra and a compassionate book by Allyson Currin.
The dozen fleet-footed princesses of the Grimm’s fairytale have been whittled down to two—the headstrong Lena (Ayanna Hardy) and the obedient older sister Lara (Jessica Lauren Ball). The locale as well has been changed from the days of yore to the Roaring Twenties—a time when clothes and popular dance were liberated from constraints and mannerisms.
In this sleek setting, we find Queen Alice (a jazz-age perfect Peggy Yates) and King Horace (a dapper Bobby Smith), an almost Obama-esque young and modern couple, celebrating Coronation Day with their daughters with an abundance of Charleston-ing and quick steps.
This merry scene quickly gives way to tragedy, as Queen Alice, in disappearance reminiscent of Amelia Earhart, dies while piloting an airplane. The kingdom plunges into mourning and King Horace is paralyzed with heartache, taking to his bed (the children in the audience ooohed with recognition when the King asked for his “Bear-Bear,” who sported his own little crown, promptly curled up with the stuffed animal) and refused to take leadership, despite the efforts of his loyal advisor Lt. Ike (Christopher Wilson).
King Horace also forgets that his daughters are also suffering. He makes matters worse by banning dancing—an important connection to the mother the princesses lost and their shimmering memories of her. Tutus and tap shoes are verboten—an act that not only upsets the princesses, but plunges the kingdom into unrest, a situation trumped up by film noirish reporter Joe (Doug Wilder). It is up to Lena and Lara to find a way to heal on their own, with the help of Queen Alice and a magical portal into another world.
Imagination Stage’s The Dancing Princesses is a somber affair, and the show takes on a melancholy beauty in the scenes depicting the enchanted forest (rendered by set designer James Kronzer as a gilded Art Deco paradise of twinkling lights and lustrous foliage) where the girls are briefly reunited with their graceful mother. They rebelliously dance until dawn—expressed in the exuberant, Cab Calloway-style syncopated song “Holes in Their Soles”—and then the princesses return to their shadow-life during the day.
Ultimately, their act of defiance rouses King Horace to action—his misery is channeled into an angry tap dance—and to the needs of his daughters and his subjects. The dancing also represents Lena and Lara’s break from childhood and parents to forge their own identities and personal expression.
Although the musical is subdued, it is not a dirge by any means—more mysterious and magical than maudlin. The issues of death and grief are handled with exquisite sensitivity and respect, both for what the children and adults are going through.
The acting ensemble adds lightness and quickness to the proceedings, especially Mr. Smith as the conflicted king who is tenderly portrayed as a slightly ridiculous authority figure. Mr. Wilson displays jaunty insolence as the trying-to-be-dutiful Lt. Ike and he is well matched in mischief by Miss Hardy’s Lena. Miss Ball brings dimension to the role of the “good” daughter and Mr. Wilder is a genial newshound barking out headlines as the reporter Joe.
If there is joy to be found in death, The Dancing Princesses has uncovered it, in the lovely way it shows young people how loved ones who have died are always with us—they live when we dance.
The Dancing Princesses
Book by Allyson Currin
Music and Lyrics by Christopher Youstra
Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer
Produced by Imagination Stage
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
The Dancing Princesses plays through May 30, 2010.
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