Story: A young woman named Arabella takes a transcendent journey through the mythical land of Samaren, where she meets all manner of creatures, including a scheming enchantress and her two devious daughters; the benevolent ruler of the kingdom, who yearns for his young adult son to give up his wastrel ways and settle down; a wondrous woman who uses her magic to bring happiness throughout the land; and a variety of beasts who challenge Arabella during her risky adventures in the jungle approaching the king’s castle.
The evil enchantress Layla charges Arabella with a number of tasks she must complete in order to be given permission to attend the kingdom carnival hosted by the amiable king Changamire. Armed only with her cheerful disposition and considerable guile, Arabella makes her way through Layla’s list of formidable challenges in order to participate in the festive celebration. But will Layla abide by the results of Arabella’s quest?
Highlights: Spellbound! A Musical Fable has been an arduous and adventurous task for creators Gary F. Bell and Robert L. White since they first conjured their idea in 1994. Cast nearly a year ago, with numerous rewrites since its original concept, Spellbound! is receiving its world premiere at Bell’s Stray Dog Theatre in a production that is buoyed by a number of entertaining performances and some superior technical support.
Other Info: As Stray Dog artistic director Bell points out in his director’s notes, he and White were intrigued by the universal themes prevalent in cultural histories throughout the world, “how different folk tales could be interpreted as universal life lessons.”
Their story takes elements from familiar tales such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland and Uncle Remus as well as lesser known works from Japan, India, Germany, Nigeria and England. If you listen carefully, you’ll even hear coy allusions to modern pop culture, including Dirty Harry.
Drawing inspiration from so many diverse sources to create their “New World musical fable,” Bell and White would be advised to step away from their work and view it at least a bit objectively. If so, they might agree that its three-hour running time, albeit with two well-placed intermissions, could be pared considerably without diluting its primary theme.
As if a 20-year gestation weren’t enough of a challenge, the creators had to endure an opening-night power failure that threatened to postpone the show’s world premiere. Attesting to the dictum that “the show must go on,” though, electricity was enchantingly restored and the work’s sundry artists took the stage like the accomplished troupers that they are.
With familiar ground covered a number of times, Spellbound! can be repetitive. Additionally, there are so many characters mixed into the concoction that one might prefer that some scarcely sketched creations be deleted to bring more clarity to the major roles.
Bell’s direction wisely utilizes the entire Tower Grove Abbey performing area, so that the minions as well as the primary characters roam freely through the aisles. Considering its length, he brings a surprisingly pleasant pace to the proceedings, even with the story’s episodic approach.
Technically, the show is magnificent. Tyler Duenow’s resplendent, spectacular lighting design is the best work he’s done for myriad Stray Dog productions, elevating Rob Lippert’s handsome scenic design to a higher level of achievement. Lippert’s use of a forested background provides fitting atmosphere for the series of quirky encounters greeting Arabella on her journey.
Further enhancing the magical effects are the eye-popping costumes and makeup furnished by costume designers Bell and Eileen Engel, highlighted by some eerily effective work on Tyler Cheatem as a bewitching force named Lovely.
Essential to the success of the show is a strong performance in the title role, and Meadow Tien Nguy provides exactly that. She showcases Arabella’s appealing resiliency and perseverance, both comically and with a sweet, clear voice on her vocal numbers.
Deborah Sharn is gleefully wicked as the malcontent enchantress Layla, cackling in fine comic form on the number, Layla’s Scheme, and showing her devious nature drugging her husband (?) Bangababo, an ineffectual sort played precisely by Patrick Kelly in much the manner of Cinderella’s father.
Corey Frain adds some wickedly amusing gyrations as the devious Rasputin Rat, a cheese-consuming, scheming obstacle for Arabella who twitches humorously in Frain’s portrayal. Eileen Engel and Maria Bartolotta are amusingly over the top as Arabella’s venal and vapid stepsisters Kokumo and Muchaneta, respectively, and Paula Stoff Dean delivers nicely as the ‘good witch’ Inaambura.
Zachary Stefaniak is fine as the affable king Sage Chief Changamire, while Chris Tipp brings a delightful presence to both the smitten Bengal Tiger and the self-centered prince Adama, who falls for the lovely Arabella.
Bell and White, who co-wrote the book, music and lyrics, get too precious with the character names. Additionally, while there are some pleasant tunes in a variety of forms including tango and rap, much of the music is forgettable and just bland. Stefaniak offers some pleasant choreography, especially on the tango duet with Tien Nguy and Tipp, while Justin Been adds clever sound effects.
Christopher Thomas provides original orchestration of the musical score, which Chris Petersen conducts with the assistance of a nine-piece band consisting of M. Joshua Ryan on bass, cellist Michael Ku8ba, flutist Harrison Rich, guitarist Adam Rugo, percussionist Bob McMahon, A.J. Lane on trumpet, trombonist Gabe Mueller, violinist Steve Frisbee and Peterson at the keyboard.
The large and energetic cast also includes Melissa Harris, Stefanie Kluba, Kimberly Still, Abby Eisen, Kevin Connelly, Michael Baird, Brendan Ochs, Kimmie Kidd and Michael Wells.
Spellbound! A Musical Fable has experienced its own lengthy journey from original conception by Bell and White to its first, fully staged production. Further revisions and trimming could certainly improve it for future performances, making Spellbound! all the more enjoyable.
Musical: Spellbound! A Musical Fable
Company: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: August 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $10-$25; contact 865-1995 or www.StrayDogTheatre.org
Photos courtesy of John Lamb