Review: ‘Snow Child’ at Arena Stage

The Russians have a folktale called Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden). Prominent in the 19th Century, many versions of the Snow Maiden folktale centered around the appearance of a young girl who served as a surrogate daughter for an orphaned or childless couple. From an amazing amalgam of sources, Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith has helped assemble a musical based on the Snow Child folktale, with the unlikely setting of the Alaska Territory of the 1920s. Smith partnered with Perseverance Theatre, an Alaskan theater company she helped found, to bring about the world premiere of the new musical, Snow Child.

David Landstrom, Calvin McCullough, and Matt Bogart in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Snow Child’s book is by John Strand with music by Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt, and lyrics by Stitt. Smith has directed a magical tale with redemptive themes worthy of every standing ovation it has and will receive.The musical is based on Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel The Snow Child, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

This production was birthed from a discussion in 2014 between Smith and Perseverance Theatre Artistic Director Art Rotch. The story focuses on the struggles of grieving couple Jack and Mabel, Alaskan homesteaders who are mourning the loss of an unborn child. Their dreary routine is upset by the appearance of an earthy and mysterious girl-from-the-wilderness, Faina.

A highlight of this show is the phenomenal puppetry by Puppet Designer Emily Decola and puppetry direction by Eric Wright, an Arena Stage veteran. The most impressive puppet was the massive plow horse, controlled by David Landstrom and Calvin McCullough. The puppet moved with an equine verisimilitude that included a horse-like gait and facial expressions. Brooklyn-based, Off-Broadway veteran Dorothy James’ puppetry gave me the impression that I was watching a live fox.

Dan Manning, Natalie Toro, Christiane Noll, and Matt Bogart in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Another star of the show is the remarkable set design and the skyline/landscape projection, by Broadway veteran Todd Rosenthal and Projection Designer Shawn Duan respectively. The set included flown-in logs, a rotating wagon cabin, and lots of snowflakes. The set design also featured a faux garden springing up from the stage floor and a great deal of stage fog.

Duan projected mountains and the Northern Lights among other effects. All of these effects helped usher the characters through several changes of seasons. Joseph P. Salasovich’s costume design was best when portraying the winter gear of the 1920s.

Music Supervisor Lynne Shankel oversaw the spot-on orchestration of the Alaskan string-band music that was conducted by Music Director William Yanesh, who also performed keyboard and percussion. Prominent throughout many of the songs were Andie Springer’s fiddle and the banjo and the guitar work of Hilary Hawke and Keith Arneson. The tone of the music, mostly uptempo, went back and forth between country and bluegrass.

Helen Hayes Award-nominated and Broadway veteran Matt Bogart brought characterization to his amazing singing throughout the show as Alaskan Territory homesteader and former shopkeeper Jack. He excelled in the tunes “Moosehunt Breakdown,” “Crazy,” and “Angel.”

Christiane Noll played Mabel, Jack’s artist wife. Noll’s wonderful voice carried the tunes “Come Inside,” “How the Work Gets Done,” and “How I See You.” Bogart and Noll had a convincing couple vibe going throughout the show. Jack and Mabel’s friend Garrett was played by Alex Alferov, who was last seen at Arena in Fiddler on the Roof. Alferov soloed terrifically in “Ghost Girl” and worked with Noll in “How the Work Gets Done.”

Dan Manning and Natalie Toro played George and Esther, neighboring homesteaders to Jack and Mabel. Manning, sporting a prominent white beard, brought an avuncular wisdom to his role as George. Manning, who has appeared in Ragtime on Broadway, and Toro, who originated the role of Madame Defarge in the Broadway production of A Tale of Two Cities, dueted magnificently in the tune “Opportunity.”

Playing the mysterious girl-of-the-wild, Faina, was Fina Strazza in her Arena Stage debut. Strazza’s fine voice stood out in the song “How I See You,” and in her duet with Alferov in the reprise of “The Perfect Snow.”

A gifted ensemble moved the story along. Snow Child is filled with the wondrous spirit that makes theatergoing a joy.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Snow Child plays through May 20, 2018, at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.