Last week, a new musical was premiered at the Roy Arias Theater Center in Midtown Manhattan. Briar Rose: The Tale of Sleeping Beauty, with music by Collin Simon and lyrics by Liz Muller, is currently a community theater-quality production, but shows potential for greater things.
Based on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Briar Rose takes some creative leaps in its staging and artistic development, and is generally rewarded for its efforts. The stage is bare and dark, with a plain black backdrop and a funeral bier looming ominously upstage throughout the show. Images projected on the back wall set the scene well, most memorably a full moon that melts into the ominous shadow of a spindle. The second act opening number dabbles in Stomp-themed drumming, while the dragon in the musical’s climactic scene is a fun, neon-hued artistic venture.
The fresh-faced cast is almost entirely comprised of college students from neighboring universities, bringing youthful vim and verve to the ensemble scenes. The score is sumptuous, with some memorable tunes to hum on the way home. Unfortunately, the prerecorded accompaniment often overpowers unenhanced voices, rendering some of the wordier songs unintelligible. Several numbers are graced with effervescent bursts of choreography, performed joyously by the dance corps but frustratingly limited by the lack of space in the black box theater.
Princess Rose (Camilla Twisselman) and Prince Tristan (Sean Lessard), her savior and erstwhile childhood friend, are both very pretty, with strong voices and stronger jaw lines. (Full disclosure: I am close friends with Sean.) The two young lovers work well together, mirroring each other’s awkward advances and longing glances. While the young lovers’ budding romance is appealing, their characters remain flat, largely due to the script’s lack of compelling story lines. Rose alternates between yearning for freedom and drooping with self-pity, singing that “that’s the way the story ends.” She never displays enough self-reliance or motivation to make us root for her. Tristan’s difficulty in admitting his romantic feelings for Rose feels unnecessary and false; from the moment he walks on stage at age nine, it’s obvious that he’s smitten. Tristan is at his best when enacting a buddy comedy with his elderly tutor (Tim Larsen) and delivering cheeky one-liners.
Opposing the lovers are the forces of evil: the wicked fairy and her demons, Vice (Lisa Ann Wetzel) and Versa (Sal Pavia.) The two minions are excellent together, torquing their sinuous bodies acrobatically, finishing each other’s sentences and screeching with laughter. They also provide genius comic relief, in the spirit of the hyenas in Disney’s The Lion King. Versa, the dumber of the two, is uproarious as he bumbles his way through the entire show, babbling about non sequiturs and being socially awkward at parties. Above them both, however, is Avarice, the evil fairy played with great relish by the multi-talented Liz Muller. Equal parts Norma Desmond and Divine, Ms. Muller is quick with a quip and spooky as hell, and isn’t afraid to unleash her powerhouse of a voice to great effect. More than any other performer in the production, she owns the stage and the audience from the first note of her performance. (The Xena-esque bustier doesn’t hurt, either.)
The show is solidly split into two worlds: that of evil, with fun, physical performances and a heavy dose of anachronism and vaudeville shtick. (Avarice, Vice and Versa demonstrate their Facebook profile picture pose to the audience.) The other world, that of good, is firmly rooted in the world of college and community theater productions, with generally likable characters who deliver their lines convincingly and sing well, but who do not move the audience to feel. This second world could use an infusion of the first. Furthermore, regardless of how many cultural references or slapstick pratfalls were thrown into Briar Rose, the show still lacks a purpose. What new interpretation or insight does this manifestation of the Grimm fairy tale bring to the table? The plot flirts with many themes- preservation of youth, defiance of authority, self-discovery, desire of the forbidden, guilt of desertion, the very origin of evil itself- yet none are developed fully enough to drive the story in a new direction.
One scene reassures me that all is not lost for this musical. The climactic pricking of the princess’s finger is a confrontation between Rose and Avarice, young versus old, pure versus corrupted, yet both very much alike in their solitude, and both seeking comfort. The two women sing and dance a duet, with Avarice weirdly wresting control of Rose’s body and manipulating her without ever touching her. The freakish physicality borders on seduction, and builds to a sexual tension that pushes the bounds of the women’s relationship and the entire story. The scene is chilling. When Briar Rose’s creative team takes the ingenuity and boldness of this scene and applies it to the rest of the production, they will have a masterpiece indeed.