REVIEW” Academy of Arts’ Lavish ‘Narnia’ Tale is Divine Spectacle for the Ages

lion witch wardrobe
Aslan the Lion is voiced by Academy of Arts Ministries Founder Nicky Chavers and operated by Justin Swain, Craig Robertson and Jeremiah Gould.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC & PUBLISHER

The third time is certainly the charm for the Academy of Arts in Taylors. On opening night of its newest mounting of C. S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” Greenville Councilman Dr. Sid Cates recognized the school and its founders Nicky and Sheri Chavers for 45 years of educating youth with a proclamation declaring Friday, Feb. 26 as Academy of Arts Ministries Day in Greenville.

And the Academy announced this play was invited to the coveted American High School Theatre Festival this summer as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. The cast and crew will get some road experience before embarking to Europe: first in Fredericksburg, VA on April 7-9 and then to on Greeneville, TN on April 14-17.

After experiencing this amazing spectacle first-hand, one can only conclude that it was a non-starter decision for the powers-that-be in Edinburgh to include this lavish, cohesive and wholly-imaginative production on its roster. Obviously, the traveling version will be downsized from this Cecil B. Demille-worthy presentation that features mammoth set pieces, hundreds of costumes and an enormous cast (many on double-or triple duties) that ranges in age from preschoolers to conservatory students and Academy faculty and staff members.

The most popular book in “The Chronicle of Narnia” series, this stage adaptation by Joseph Robinette (“A Christmas Story, The Musical”) is quite faithful to its source material. The story begins in the Blitz of 1940 London with the four Pevensie siblings being evacuated from London: the eldest Peter (Jeremiah Johnson), the brave Susan (Ariel Weaver), headstrong Edmund (Nathan Wilson) and the adventurous young Lucy (Morgan Naegel).

They arrive at the country estate of the endearing, and as it turns out, open-minded, Professor Kirk (Academy CEO Nick Stratton) and stumble upon a wardrobe that leads the youth to the snow-covered world of Narnia, ruled by the White Witch (the fabulously wicked Nicole Stratton, who also directs this beautiful production).

In short, the children discover that their arrival was predicted in a great prophesy and they unite to wage a battle and restore the great lion and the rightful King, Aslan, to the throne once again.

But during their epic adventure, they encounter some of the creatures in Narnia, played mostly by young performers: a centaur, wolves, deer, trees, rabbits, spirits, spring dancers, foxes, sight seers, squirrels, mice, evil creatures, etc.

Some of the friendly adult inhabitants of Narnia are played by heads of the Academy’s stellar creative team. The affable Zac Johnson (VP of Development) and highly-amusing Jennifer Davis (graphics supervisor) are the trusty Mr. and Mrs. Beaver adorned in pelts and prosthetic buck teeth.

The faun, Mr. Tumnus, is played by set designer Joe Hainsworth (with Ms. Stratton), who along with Technical Supervisor Ken Hines (Father Christmas) are chiefly responsible for the singular vision that elevates this staging to the echelon of professional artistry: the marvelous 20-foot turntable stage (a la “Les Miserables”), the dual staircase set piece and the tree-limb motifs for the train, the beaver damn home and the Queen’s sleigh. These are all first-rate and inventive, stylized concepts, not to mention the star attraction, the 15-foot puppet Aslan, created by Hines.

Aslan, nobly voiced by Mr. Chavers and operated by Justin Swain, Craig Robertson and Jeremiah Gould, has been making the rounds all over Greenville and is the crowning achievement and public face of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” even propelling the Academy’s float to winning the top prize in the Greenville Poinsettia Christmas Parade in December.

Aslan is reminiscent of the Asian-tradition of puppetry that brilliant director/designer Julie Taymor used so effectively in “The Lion King” on Broadway. Furthermore, the Tree characters (Standing Trees, Trees on Stilts, Flying Trees and Flying Bird) evoke Taymor’s work in her film adaption of Shakespeare’s “Titus.”

The divine costumes are supervised by Christy Guidinger, Emily Chapman and Bethany Barton and the labor-intensive make-up is headed by Rachel Macijack and Susan Marshall.

The technical achievements in this show are quite awe-inspiring from the aerial stunts originating from the two trap doors to the low-hanging dry ice fog that handily covers the stage with “snow.”

The company scenes with multitudes of dancers and the climatic battle scene are epic in proportion and skill and choreographed with precision by Christine Lamas, Rachel Bjorkman, Joe Hainsworth and Matt Hainsworth. And besides the dangerous flying sequences, there are several instances when the actors and dancers faced peril either coming within inches of the open trap doors, traversing the dual staircase landings before they were completely connected, or falling to the edge of the two-story set in the Blitz bombing scene. But this cast and crew is versed as much in safety as in their lines.

Ms. Stratton exercises crisp direction and crafty scene blocking and the actors are well-prepared with admirable English accents. Lighting designer Hannah Fike ignites most every trick in her arsenal and the pre-recorded dramatic score provides auditory enchantment during the scene transitions and mammoth set changes.

The first act was extremely solid and tight, and the second act, which is far more intensive and complex, had a only couple of minor timing issues and there was an intimate scene or two downstage that could have benefited from a tad more illumination. Also, I could not quite get a handle on Mrs. McCready’s accent (German? Irish?) and some of Mrs. Beaver’s funniest lines were unfortunately drowned out or muddled by those fake teeth. Otherwise, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is a flawless play with impeccable acting and production values on a grand scale usually reserved for big-budget musicals.

And speaking of values, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is a perfect choice for a Christian institution like the Academy of Arts Ministries.  The allegories of Jesus Christ and the resurrection, references to the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, themes of betrayal, and the struggle of good vs. evil are all intertwined into this high-fantasy tale and the results is a story that is appealing to audiences and family members of all ages.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” runs through Feb. 27 at the Logos Theatre, 80 School St. in Taylors. Shows are Tuesdays at 11:30 a.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. Visit http://theacademyofarts.org/ to purchase tickets today!

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