Before I get into this rather lengthy review, I want to make it really clear that this critique is not just meant to be read by parents looking for something fun to do with their kids this weekend (although its definitely for them too). It's meant for anyone in Knoxville who enjoys the theatre: the same people who might consider taking in a show at Tennessee Stage Company, Theatre Knoxville Downtown, River and Rail, or Flying Anvil; y'all need to get down to Knoxville Children's Theatre, because with Sleeping Beauty and the Seven Sisters, Artistic Director Zack Allen and director Caroline Dyer are more than ready to confound your preconceived notions about what it means to attend a "children's show".
Sleeping Beauty and the Seven Sisters is an original work by KCT's co-founder and artistic director Zach Allen. As tightly scripted a comedy as you could ask for, with a well crafted plot, snappy dialogue, and several instances of real insight, one could easily imagine this play staged by any contemporary American company producing the likes of Neil Simon, Phillip Barry, or Noel Coward. The story follows the overall structure of the original French folk tale with some very effective modifications. Allen's addition of the Seven Sisters, magical beings each embodying one of the seven chivalric virtues, is highly effective. And his choice to set the action straddling the French Revolution so that, in the vein of Rip Van Winkle, we see the story's titular character fall asleep in one world and wake up in another very different one, is a clever bit of authorial craftsmanship. But, all that heady analysis aside, the play is fast moving, light-hearted, fun and funny. Like the very best Disney films, or the original Loony Tunes, there is plenty of humor directed at everyone in attendance, from the youngest patrons to the oldest. In his tenure at KCT, Allen has apparently penned more than 20 original works, and after last night, I am excited to see more from this talented local playwright.
Director Caroline Dyer has assembled a cast of burgeoning young actors who display a level of poise and technical proficiency that belies their age (averaging somewhere around 13 by my calculation). Aedan Smith takes on the role of Severine, mother to the ill fated Briar-Rose. Her transition from youthful stable-girl to courtly lady and then to aged and grief stricken mother, is demonstrated through a series of effective and admirably subtle physical choices. Smith plays across from Cody Chaffins as Squire Marchand who does a very fitting job filling the role of the kind-hearted nobleman, exhibiting a strong emotional range, especially at one unexpectedly pointed moment of frustration.
Madame Noriet (Betsy Blumberg) and Monseigneur Noriet (Eric Magee) play a pair of busy-body servants, who, in the grand tradition of Moliere's neoclassical comedies, fumble, futz, scheme and scamper through the play's first act. Blumberg plays straight-woman to Magee's bumbling antics and together the duo achieve the play's most dynamic pairing, simultaneously garnering laughs and driving the action every time they appear.
Briar-Rose, the play's sleeping beauty is portrayed by Campbell Ayres who, though she spends a good potion of the play asleep (as one might expect), still shines with some excellent vocal work in several expository monologues, vibrantly coloring passages that in less skilled hands could have easily become tedious. Opposite her is Chase Russell as the proverbial handsome soldier Martine. Russell is every bit the leading man, exuding a youthful charisma with convincing doses of confident humility and earnest emotional delivery.
Completing the principal cast is wacky sorcerer-turned-health-food-guru Giradot LeGrande brought to life by the talented Audry Jones. Jones crackles with a comedic energy and bombastic physicality reminiscent of the great Tracy Ullman while exhibiting the maturity and good sense to not let her character's frenetic energy upstage her scene partners.
It's something of a misnomer to call the actresses comprising the Seven Sisters the 'supporting cast'. Together these ladies more accurately form a tight ensemble working with an organic fluidity that both heightens their characters' mystical nature, and on a practical level, keeps the show moving at a steady clip. Lauren Rymer stands out as Dominique the Diligent, the antagonistic Sister who curses Briar-Rose, bringing equal parts righteous indigence and petulance to bear the role. Likewise, Hallie Boring exhibits admirable technical skill in her nuanced presentation of Clementine the Kind. But, as with any ensemble, the success of one member is almost entirely dependent on the effectiveness of the group as a whole. While actresses Delana Pritchard (Felicity the Faithful), Nikki Roberts (Renee the Reasonable), Sadie Kemp (Charlotte the Charitable), Marie Kauffman (Patrice the Patient), and Ellie Copeland (Helena the Humble) all have well earned moments in the comedic spotlight, it is as a group that the Sisters create an immensely watchable dynamic even greater than the sum of its parts.
I would be remiss if I didn't spend a moment talking about the exceptional level of stagecraft put forth by this show's design team and production crew. Simply put, from a production standpoint, Sleeping Beauty is one of the best looking shows I've seen outside of a professional theater in a while. This is due in no small part to the immaculate facility that KCT calls home. Located at 109 E. Churchwell Avenue in North Knoxville, this 120 seat proscenium with excellent sight lines and all the creature comforts surely qualifies as one of the top theater spaces in the city. But, even a state of the art facility is nothing without the designers and techs that know what to do with it. Luckily, it turns out that KCT's deep bench of young talent extends to its production team as well.
Employing just a few lush upstage fabrics, a couple columns, and several detailed set pieces, scenic designer Sean Sloas elegantly and clearly evokes multiple locations, times, and moods, while managing to keep traffic lanes clear for the sizable fourteen-member cast. Costume designers Jaden Lily Branson and Ansley Hughes match Sloas at every turn, with period appropriate apparel that not only advances the show's aesthetic but informs the audience about every character from the moment they step on stage. Not to be outdone, the lighting design by Wheeler Moon, Max Harpeer and Derrick Washington JR was expertly conceived and thrillingly executed; especially gratifying was the lovely and surreal dream sequence. Aside from the obvious credit she is due for helming such an excellent show, director Dyer deserves special recognition for weaving together all of these design elements with the action on stage to create a series of beautiful pictures and moments that appear to form naturally, but which, to a trained eye, speak volumes about her competence as a director. Lastly, stage manager Charlotte Stark deserves praise for keeping the wheels greased and everyone exactly where they need to be, as evidenced by the lighting-fast and near-silent set changes, as well as the many simultaneous and seamlessly executed lighting and sound cues.
Is Sleeping Beauty a children's production? Yes. Is every member of the cast and crew still mastering the fundamentals of their craft? Yes. Is it worth your while to find out what these very talented young artists are already doing with the skills they possess? Absolutely. Because, not only is this production an exciting peak at the theatrical talent on the horizon in Knoxville, but more fundamentally than that, Sleeping Beauty and the Seven Sisters is a good example of what theatre ought to be: local artists working together and using their combined skills to tell a unique, beautiful, and entertaining story for the members of their community.
Sleeping Beauty runs through June 25 at the Knoxville Children's Theatre.
-- JP Schuffman is the Managing Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club, critic, poet, and novice stilt walker.
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