Emily Schwartz, one of Chicago's most interesting and imaginative young writers, has written a full-blown musical, one of those fractured, wry, hipster, suitable-for-everyone fairy tales that lands somewhere among "The Princess Bride," "Peter and the Starcatcher" and "Spamalot," which is a very savvy spot on which to plop for the holidays. Displaying notable compositional chops, Schwartz also came up with an indie-style, string-heavy score, played live and, in it best moments, recalling the musical "Once." Schwartz's lyrics are funny and wholly charming and her tunes tasty. And when you add a gorgeous design from Joe Schermoly, replete with the whimsical storytellers emerging from a kind of gypsy trailer in the woods, "The Dead Prince" conveys all kinds of potential freshness and vitality.
But this unwieldy and indulgent world premiere production, directed by Paul Holmquist at the Storefront Theater, needs work. A whole lot. To the point where this was quite the confounding evening, given the huge promise of the material.
It's really a matter of fundamentals. "The Dead Prince" is a musical, but the majority of the cast members in this Strange Tree Group production are not confident singers. Sure, they can carry a tune, and there are some decent musicians, but, well, musicals are musicals, and there are many actors who specialize therein. It was a matter, perhaps, of stepping outside the usual ensemble and finding performers who could really deliver on Schwartz's songs.
And then there is the similarly crucial matter of good old-fashioned storytelling. Insufficient attention gets paid to the narrative arc. There are no overarching stakes. Energy flows but gets quickly dissipated.
"The Dead Prince" follows a quest structure, beloved of all from J.R.R. Tolkien to Pixar, wherein a motley group of characters goes off to find something or someone. The trip here revolves around Princess Sara's (Ann Sonneville) desire for true love, despite being told by every magic mirror she finds that her true love (played by Scott Cupper) is dead. Why let a little thing like that get in the way? Since all quests need villains, Schwartz provides one here in Maldorf (Michael Thomas Downey), a dude who finds himself trapped in one such mirror and smells a way out. The Princess' requisite pal is a charming minstrel named Will (Zachary Sigelko) who unselfishly joins her little affaire du coeur and yet whose charms and potential the royal lady does not immediately appreciate. And various owls, birds and the like (in puppet form, naturally) chirp along the way.
It's a quirky and cool structure, but, alas, some of these actors sure seize their chance to create eccentric characters and, too often, they do so without sufficient attention to believability or how much time is passing under their indulgences. Some of these performances are scaled not for the Storefront but for the Oriental Theatre, where, if everyone involved here took a look at "Wicked," they'd see that fantastical stories often benefit from savvy, self-aware and conversational dialogue. Humanity. Simplicity. Cupper is funny in places (I won't spoil the story, but he does not entirely stay dead), but his shtick results in real sags in the narrative, just as Downey's over-the-top villainy kills off the kind of subtlety that such an alternative-styled show badly needs. Neither is believable.
Which brings me to the Princess herself. It is a relief, certainly, to spend time with such a character neither born of Disney nor in love with a man named William, but Sonneville needs to open her heart to us if we are to give two figs about her quest. The best theatrical princesses are vulnerable, even the smart, revisionist ones. You need to care about them. That is what missing here. And that's why the 100-minute running time feels too long.
I truly hope "The Dead Prince" comes back to life in future years, with a more honest, simple and better crafted production. Schwartz really has something that could live.
When: Through Dec. 22
Where: Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $15 at strangetree.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun