What a difference a movie makes. Five years ago the production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at the Dallas Children’s Theater would have sailed over the heads of many of the young children at the Saturday matinee I attended in the Rosewood Center for Family Arts, while a handful of their older brothers and sisters eagerly awaited key plot points from C.S. Lewis’ classic story to come alive on stage. But even the youngest children who attended the DCT’s adaptation of Lewis’ fairy tale about four children who pass through a wardrobe into a magical world of talking beasts, black magic, and a Christ-like lion were whispering to their parents in the rows around me: “Is that Aslan? Where’s Lucy? What happened to Mr. Tumnus?” The appeal of the production is not so much the magic watching storybook characters come alive on stage, as is often is with the DCT, but rather how the experience of a story told on stage differs from film.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe possesses a number of obvious challenges to a theatrical production, not the least of which being the large cast of talking animals and the witch’s love of turning her subjects to stone. The DCT’s production has mixed success bringing these elements of the story to stage. It frames the story with a video projected narrator, who serves to eliminate the need for staging much of the “real world” scenes from the book, allowing the play to get right into Narnia. The four children, donning faux-British accents with uneven success, visit Tumnus’ cottage and the beaver’s home on side stages that jut out, bringing the action very close to the audience. Winter is indicated by translucent icicles that hang from the top of the stage and recede as spring arrives with Aslan. A booming, new age-y tribal soundtrack drums up the feeling of fantasy, taking its cues, it seems, from the feel of the Disney production. A bit of nifty stage magic allows smoke to rise from ground and Turkish Delight to mysteriously appear in the hands of the witch’s dwarf.
John Brumley spends his performance on his knees as the dwarf, and the effect is successful. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, while only wearing pieces of costume that suggest the two actors as furry water-dwelling creatures, also generally convince, and Morgana Shaw is chilling as the White Witch. Aslan, however, is a bit of a let-down. David Lugo wears a great big wig, paws, and a furry jumpsuit with a tail to indicate that he is a lion, but he looks more like the Wizard of Oz’s cowardly lion than the image of the noble, Christ-figure that Lewis’ story creates. His stringy, long-haired mane make him look a bit like a heavy metal rock star (any Metallica fans in the audience might mistake him for James Hetfield), and I overheard at least two children nearby asking their parents who the character was supposed to be. It doesn’t help that Lugo tosses off and mumbles some of his lines like a young Hamlet trying to get comfortable with Shakespearean text. As a result, Aslan’s moments of suffering seem neurotic and nervous, and the character is decidedly less grand than he ought to be.
I brought my two daughters to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, both of them more or less devoted fanatics of the story. Even though we expected the youngest to grow restless during the production, she was completely enthralled from curtain to curtain. It was the eldest who had difficulty at first entering this stage version of Narnia. She was disappointed that the story wasn’t as grandly realized as the film or as vivid as her imagination, and a little unsettled by the theater’s intimacy (“I was nervous that they were going to call me up on stage,” she said). But that’s the charm of seeing this story on stage. Though the stage version is forced to break down the story to its most basic elements, my eldest daughter was eventually won over by the vividness of the characters realized by real actors on stage. Conversation has been dominated by particularities of the stage production since. Curiously, the youngest keeps saying that she misses Lucy. There’s the real fun of the DCT’s production: while the stage could never meet the expectations built by a child’s imagination or a film, the characters in the story come alive in a new way through the real people who are on stage. That’s the appeal of the theater, and there’s something magic in that.