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Review: “The Light Princess”

October 22nd, 2013

Founding Editor Tom Mizer reports back from London on the new Tori Amos/Samuel Adamson musical The Light Princess.

Nick Hendrix & Rosalie Craig in "The Light Princess". Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Nick Hendrix & Rosalie Craig in “The Light Princess”. Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

They say you know you’ve got it bad when you love someone, not in spite of their imperfections, but because of them.  If that’s true, then I’m a goner for the new musical The Light Princess, written by acclaimed singer/songwriter (and piano-straddling goddess) Tori Amos and playwright Samuel Adamson. Two weeks after seeing the world premiere production at London’s National Theatre, I still can’t shake this eye-poppingly lush, maddeningly bizarre, emotionally shattering, wonderfully weird work of theater.

Rosalie Craig in "The Light Princess". Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Rosalie Craig in “The Light Princess”. Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Based on a nineteenth century fairy tale, but infused with an anarchic feminist spirit, the musical tells the story of a princess who becomes so “light” with grief (or better said, lack of grief) following her mother’s death that she literally floats. More interestingly, the show suggests that Princess Althea doesn’t simply need to learn to cry, but must come to terms with adulthood. Her flying above the world becomes a metaphor for the sometimes selfish and other times frightened flailing of adolescence — and a decidedly modern female adolescence at that — with symbolic references to drugs, eating disorders (in one of the plays funniest gags, if you can believe it), angry rebellion, sex and suicide.

The deeply felt, almost primal, production that results from such explorations is as beautiful, ungainly, powerful and too-smart-for-her-own-good as the heroine at its heart. And what a heroine she is — Rosalie Craig’s performance as Althea is magical, mercurial and physically astonishing; suspended in the air via multiple techniques for much of the show, she sings gorgeously and makes sense of even the densest passages. The direction by Marianne Elliott (reuniting with much of her War Horse team) results in some of the most magical stagecraft I’ve seen in a theater. The scene where Althea floats into the arms of a prince from a rival land makes swooning seem understated and inadequate forevermore. Throughout the evening, puppeteers, animation and dancers converge in swirling tides like hormonal mood swings.

No one will ever accuse this show of being a slick, perfectly ticking clock of a musical; certain sections of the play crawl by. It wouldn’t hurt to cut two of the three opening exposition sequences, much of the lake frolicking at the beginning of act two and chunks of two back-to-back “Dad grieving” numbers. Yet these difficult scenes are followed up by transcendently enveloping sequences and the audience is pulled back in, much to the surprise of my usually fussy dramaturgical mind.

Nick Hendrix & Rosalie Craig in "The Light Princess". Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Nick Hendrix & Rosalie Craig in “The Light Princess”. Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

For anyone expecting “Cornflake Girl” crossed with West Side Story, Amos’ score will be a struggle. It is not made up of traditional music theater songs but rather art songs and classical-influenced motifs that suggest emotional undercurrents without the release of pop-broadway verse/chorus structures. Anyone who knows Amos’ most recent work like the Schubert and Satie influenced Night of Hunters will recognize where she’s going, building a bed of sound filled with ear tickling repetitions and world painting. I ultimately found the score brave, at times soaringly lovely, and completely in sync with the rest of the show.

In fact, the whole production feels of one voice, as if a prodigiously gifted and deeply eccentric young woman obsessed with Victoriana and post-feminist comic books was released from her attic to be given free reign — and an unlimited budget — at a major theater. Some may tire of her, unable to go with her passionate sincerity, quirky humor and longwinded asides. I, however, had sobbed hard enough by the end of the show to shake my row of seats, then stumbled out of the theater with a gaping grin, not quite sure what had just happened. It turns out, I had fallen for The Light Princess — the woman and the show she had become.

The Light Princess
National Theatre
Through January 9, 2014

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