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Spellbound: A Musical Fable
Music. Lyrics, and Book by Gary F. Bell and Robert L. White
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
August 8, 2015

Paula Stoff Dean (center) and the cast of Spellbound Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Paula Stoff Dean (center) and the cast of Spellbound
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Spellbound: A Musical Fable, an original musical based on a blend of fairy tales and folk legends, closes out Stray Dog Theatre’s 2014-2015 season. A work that’s apparently taken the better part of 20 years to produce, and co-written by Stray Dog’s Artistic director Gary F. Bell, Spellbound is definitely a treat for the eyes, with elaborate sets and colorful costumes and some inventive staging. Still, a show is about more than how it looks, and this one needs work. Although it boasts a strong cast and some interesting ideas, the show ultimately comes across as confusing and somewhat cluttered, and still needing a great deal of work.

Although director and co-author Bell provides a long list of folktale influences on the show in his director’s note in the program, Spellbound is essentially “Cinderella” meets “Little Red Riding Hood” by way of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The basic story is mostly “Cinderella”, though. The show gives us a young protagonist, Arabella (Meadow Tien Nguy), who has grown up being mistreated by her evil stepmother Layla (Deborah Sharn) and selfish stepsisters (Maria Bartolotta as Muchaneta, Eileen Engel as Kokumo). She has a father, the well-meaning but dominated Bangabobo (Patrick Kelly), but he’s being controlled by Layla through use of a magic “tea” that she forces him to drink. Layla, who practices black magic and wishes to rule the mythical land of Samera, has a plan that involves trying to marry one of her daughters to the newly-returned prince, Adama (Chris Tipp) and eventually overthrow his father, the land’s ruler Changamire (Zachary Stefaniak).  When Changamire, desperate to find a wife for his son, listens to the advice of fairy queen Inaambura (Paula Stoff Dean) and hosts a Carnivale at his castle, Layla sees her chance. This being a Cinderella story, of course Arabella wants to go, and of course she’s not allowed. The twist is that now Arabella is sent on a deceptive quest involving a Bengal Tiger (also Tipp). The story continues from there with a few twists and turns, but the outcome is fairly predictable to anyone who’s seen any version of the Cinderella story.

I find it difficult to describe this play as anything other than cluttered. It’s three acts and over three hours long, and contains many elements that are not essential to the story, and some of the fairy tale elements have been done before (and better) elsewhere, such as in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. There’s a prologue scene that doesn’t seem to connect to the rest of the story, and the songs are mostly unmemorable.  There are some standout moments, though–especially the well-staged and entertaining “The Tiger’s Tango” sequence in Act 2. Nguy has an excellent voice and strong stage presence as Arabella, showing off her vocal prowess in the 80s style power-pop ballad “Wings of an Angel”, and displaying good chemistry with Tipp as both the Tiger and as the aimless Adama. It’s strange that this is billed as a journey of identity acceptance when Arabella seems to be the most confident person around, and the character who really changes the most is Adama.  Tipp gives a sympathetic performance, and his scenes with Nguy are the real highlights of the show. Otherwise, there are good performances from most of the overcrowded cast, with Kelly, Dean, Sharn and others giving fine performances, although there’s kind of an air of “dress rehearsal” about a lot of the performances and staging.

The real star of this show is its production values. The whimsical, colorful set by Rob Lippert and stylish, quirky costumes by Engel and Bell are the real highlights here, putting the audience into the magical world much more than the actual story does. There’s also some spectacular lighting by Tyler Duenow that helps maintain the mystical, ethereal atmosphere of a wondrous fairy tale.  This show is worth seeing simply for the spectacular visuals.

Overall, I would say that, while Spellbound has its moments and is generally entertaining, it’s a story with a little too much going on and with ideas that have been done better elsewhere. Bell did say in his pre-show speech that the show is still being worked on and changed throughout its run, and I hope those changes manage to make the story clearer and less cluttered. Still, it’s an impressive effort from the large cast, and especially the top-notch production design. This show’s real accomplishment is visual, creating a world with a stunning sense of style. I just wish there was a little more magic in the story.

Chris Tipp, Meadow Tien Nguy Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Chris Tipp, Meadow Tien Nguy
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 Spellbound: A Musical Fable runs at Stray Dog Theatre’s Tower Grove Abbey until August 22, 2015.

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