Most of us are acquainted with the fabled fairy tale about the princess who, along with everyone else in that particular kingdom long ago and far away, is put to sleep at age 16 for a very long time because of a spell cast by a vengeful fairy who wasn’t invited to the princess’s christening. There is a clause, however, that states the spell can be broken if the princess is kissed by a prince.
In contemporary musical and narrative terms by Rachel Sheinkin (book), Brendan Milburn (music), Valerie Vigoda (lyrics), and Rebecca Taichman (direction), the fairy tale resurfaces with naturalistic whimsy in a present-day sleep disorders clinic. Under an aura of psychoneurotic disenchantment, “Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” but without enough get-up-and-go.
Those who have seen and can recall the beguiling 2006 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as co-produced by the McCarter Theater and Paper Mill Playhouse, may recognize the fancifully articulated style of rock that defines the music of Milburn and Vigoda, members of the band Groovelily, the ensemble that was delightfully integrated into “Midsummer” (as directed by Tina Landau.)
Taichman has not yet gotten to the place in “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” where this musical’s flights of fantasy are either gainfully or excitingly entwined with the show’s contrasting digressions into reality. The sense of the unexpected is missing in the staging as is an element of surprise in Sheinkin’s book. I kept wishing that Taichman could take every aspect and element of the production just one step further into the surreal. There seems to be a directorial initiative to keep the performances low-key to the extreme, a decision that keeps the essentially one-dimensional characters rooted in abstraction.
Decidedly an allegory, the story is simple and clever enough. King (Bob Stillman), although distraught and weary, has not given up hope that his daughter Rose, also called Beauty (Aspen Vincent), may some day awake. King admits to the dismayingly disinterested Doctor in charge of the clinic (Kecia Lewis-Evans) that Rose has been asleep for 900 years. The Doctor is skeptical: “I analyze sleep disorders.” When King insists that she has one, the Doctor, who is inclined to have them thrown out, insists “Not if you can’t wake her.”
When the Doctor is persuaded by King (“I pay cash”) to monitor Rose’s dreams, Rose is placed in a ward with four patients: Murray (Steve Judkins) who snores, Hadara (Adinah Alexander) who has twitching leg syndrome, Leon (Jimmy Ray Bennett) who can’t fall sleep except at work; and Cheryl (Donna Vivino) who fears not being able to wake up. Their problems are amusingly revealed in a pithy little ditty “Can You Cure Me.” They are deployed throughout the action as participants in Rose’s dreams, also harmonizing on one occasion with a refreshing tune, “Still Small Hour,” sung in the nostalgic style of the Mills Brothers.
Rose is undoubtedly a beauty, as she reclines comatose in a lovely party dress of rose petals (as prettily fabricated by costume designer Miranda Hoffman). Rose’s dreams take her back to her search for the spindle on which, true to the story, she pricked her finger.
More importantly, the clinic’s apparently only Orderly (a wonderfully eccentric and disarming performance by Bryce Ryness) is seriously narcoleptic among his other neurological challenges. Of course, he is smitten by the lovely but unresponsive Rose with whom he nevertheless can cavort with in dream-time. Is he destined to become her prince in reality? Are we surprised that Rose’s over-protective dad King is at the root of her problems and appears to be the cause of Rose’s rebelliousness, unhappiness, and her subconscious decision to escape from life in sleep?
It’s fortunate that a character-defining song such as “Good for Me,” in which Rose unleashes her rage at her father, comes along to shake up a mild building up of insouciance. In another instance, Kecia Lewis-Evans, who throws away almost all her spoken lines, miraculously reinvests herself in the show when she sings. She is also spectacularly re-invented as the Bad Fairy in a disturbing dream with Rose.
Sheinkin, lauded for her book for the Tony Award-winning musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” has been an essential collaborator on “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” since it was originally awakened in a much different version for the Deaf West/Center Theater Group in Los Angeles in 2007. Although this musical has evidently gone through many changes over the past four years, I suspect that some more might be in order to achieve a more engaging and more entertaining contrast between what the characters dream and what they and we see as reality.
Doug Verone’s fluid choreography, in particular a dream sequence in which a hospital bed becomes a conspiring participant, is a highlight but also underlines the need for more theatrical invention. It’s hard to understand why the options for more fantastical dreaming have not been explored.
This is a musical of many small delights, including some pithy declarations (“I don’t know how I’ll fall asleep without my phone. Usually I surf online for hours before I can let go of the day”) and just as many missed opportunities. The ultra cool white and clinical setting, as evoked by set designer Riccardo Hernandez, allows opportunities for the abstracted projections designed by Peter Nigrini. One almost longs to see the unseen band, perhaps as an integral part of the dream sequences. Taichman, who dazzled us with her rose-bedecked staging of Twelfth Night at McCarter in 2009, and for her direction of “Orlando” and “The Scene” Off Broadway will undoubtedly have time to dream some more with the company as it continues to its next stop at the La Jolla Playhouse.
“Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” Through Sunday, June 5, Berlind Theater at the McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place. $20 to $70. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.