The fables of Hans Christian Andersen have long warmed the soul and melted the heart.
From the piercing tragedy of "The Little Match Girl" and the romance of "The Little Mermaid" to the enchantment of "Thumbelina," Andersen crystallizes the magic of childhood, the way whimsy and wonder can dispel the dreariness of the adult world. Now in the theatrical adaptation of "The Snow Queen" in its world premiere at San Jose Rep, the Danish writer once again transports us into a strange and beautiful world where innocence is always under siege. Only epic sacrifice can save the day in this frosty once upon a time.
Adapted by Rick Lombardo and Kirsten Brandt, this steampunk fantasy taps into the darkness and mysticism that make this 1845 tale so endlessly alluring. A bewitching fairy tale that also inspired the Disney movie "Frozen," "The Snow Queen" captures the pangs of loss that go hand in hand with coming of age. If this pop rock musical incarnation doesn't fly quite as high as it might, it's illuminated by many a moment of ingenuity and wit under Lombardo's direction.
Little Gerda (Eryn Murman) looks at the world with a spunkiness born of naivete. When her BFF Kai (Tim Homsley) gets a shard in his eye from the mirror of disillusionment, a bedeviled object, he suddenly sees only the evils of mankind. Blind to the joys of life, he grows cruel and remote and abandons his playfellow to pay homage to the Snow Queen (the mesmerizing Jane Pfitsch), an icy beauty with a glittering face and a black heart.
Ignoring the advice of her beloved grandmother (Lee Ann Payne), Gerda charges off to rescue the aloof Kai on an epic odyssey involving witches with singing flowers, war hero crows, a talking river and bloodthirsty snowflakes. If she does not save Kai in time he will no doubt succumb to the dastardly bliss of the queen's deadly kiss. Pfitsch fuses seduction with menace in the white-hot "Kiss You to Death" song. The more she embraces the boy, the colder his disdain for humanity grows.
The music is a character unto itself in this incarnation of the lore. Haddon Kime's pleasing score flies from punk rock riffs to tender ballads with grace but there are many points when the songs don't drive the story forward with enough urgency. The musical often feels overstuffed with ballads that weigh down its uplifting narrative arc and the heroine's journey often feels too winding to maintain its intensity. It's not that songs like "Alone" and "Flying" and "Aurora" aren't lovely but there's a sense of sameness to the tunes that slows down the pulse of the production.
Make no mistake; many of the lyrics (written by Lombardo, Brandt and Kime) are clever and the music suggests the exuberance and pluck of "Wicked" and "Spring Awakening." The sassy anti-princess anthem "Never Give Up" is a hoot.
Still, by far the most beguiling aspects of the staging revolve around its funky and hip sense of inventiveness. The adapters imbue this classic tale with a fresh and quirky air, transforming a pair of pigeons (Janice Engelgau and Summer C. Latimer) into Valley Girls who speak in OMGs as well as coos and framing the robber maiden as a snarling punk rock diva (played with great panache by Cindy Im). The unexpected glee of the "I Want That" number cannot be overstated.
The versatile ensemble of actors hop from one role to another as Gerda encounters a menagerie of trolls, birds, reindeer and royalty trekking across the harsh terrain of Erik Flatmo's set, a realm of steel girders framed by ethereal snowflake projections. Jason Hite steals many a scene as the jauntily heroic Old Crow, and Rhett George imbues both the troll and the reindeer with elan. The animals are, alas, a tad more interesting than the children, but the delicacy Andersen found in the animal world helps give this "Snow Queen" its wings.
Book and song lyrics by Kirsten Brandt and Rick Lombardo, music by Haddon Kime; adapted from the story by Hans Christian Andersen
Through: Dec. 22
Where: San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $34 to $79; 408-367-7255, www.sjrep.com