Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 19
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
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Music/Theater

(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
ROMANCE AND SLEEP DISORDERS: An orderly in a sleep disorder clinic (Bryce Ryness) enters the surrealistic world of dreams and fairy tales to swim the castle moat and awake the sleeping beauty (Aspen Vincent) in a romantic pas de deux, complete with dazzling lighting effects and wheeling hospital bed in “Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” a rock musical comedy at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 5.

This Sleeping Beauty Comes to the Sleep Disorder Clinic In Rocking 21st Century Riff on the Classic Fairy Tale

Donald Gilpin

Had any trouble sleeping lately? Any problems staying awake during the day? Any interesting dreams to tell us about? Worried that you’re less than fully awake to the events of your life as they speed by?

Sleeping Beauty Wakes, at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 5 then moving on to La Jolla Playhouse in California, brings the romantic magic of the classic Charles Perrault fairy tale to the incongruous setting of a contemporary sleep disorder clinic. With book by Rachel Sheinkin, 2005 Tony Award winner for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, score by husband and wife team Brendan Milburn (music) and Valerie Vigoda (lyrics) of GrooveLily, and direction by Rebecca Taichman (Twelfth Night at McCarter, 2009) — this off-beat material is surely in good hands.

The dialogue is sharp and funny, and the story is mostly entertaining and engaging. The hip, lively music — a combination of rock, folk, blues and ballads — includes a range of alluring melodies, clever character numbers, and powerful love songs. The eight-character ensemble is first-rate, vocally and dramatically — perfectly cast, thoroughly committed and abundantly talented, from the eccentric sleep disorder patients (Steve Judkins, Adinah Alexander, Jimmy Ray Bennett, Donna Vivino) to the thick-skinned doctor (Kecia Lewis-Evans) with a heart of gold and a mysterious past to the romantic, also sleep-disordered young orderly (Bryce Ryness) to the overprotective King (Bob Stillman) and his dazzling daughter Beauty (Aspen Vincent), newly arrived direct from the world of fairy tales.

McCarter Theatre’s production of “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” will play through June 5 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for tickets and further information.

Production values here are impressive, stunning at times in both their stark realism and their creative surrealism. The music, performed from offstage — two keyboards, guitar, bass, and percussion under the direction of James Sampliner — is catchy, tuneful, and moving. Riccardo Hernandez’s set, with dynamically colorful lighting by Christopher Akerlind, creates the sterile clinic setting with prevailing fluorescent lights, five beds, and five imposing electronic charts on the wall above them. A scrim curtain downstage and extravagantly inventive projections (Peter Nigrini) on the back wall enhance the transitions between realistic and fantasy worlds. Costumes by Miranda Hoffman and sound by Leon Rothenberg also partake, with rich skill and creativity, in the provocative mix of the realism of the hospital clinic and the fairy tale realm of romance, dream, and magic. Doug Varone’s spirited choreography adds to the spectacle, and Ms. Taichman brings it all together stylishly and smoothly.

Visually, musically, dramatically — this production offers a wealth of pleasures, though it might not appeal to all tastes. Sleeping Beauty Wakes, a reworked version of a 2007 Los Angeles production, is an eclectic merging of (at least) two different shows, and sometimes that merging is less than seamless and satisfying.

Sleeping Beauty Wakes is in part a serious exploration of the problem of sleep disorders and the world of dreams. The realistic hospital setting with its extensive electronic apparatus brings this aspect of the production to vivid life. But at the same time, this show is a fairy tale, complete with loving father King and his beautiful daughter, a wicked fairy who casts a spell, the fatal spinning wheel, the would-be prince on a romantic quest, and an extravagantly romantic resolution.

The concept of sending Sleeping Beauty to a contemporary sleep clinic is imaginative and promising, but in practice the superimposition of the two worlds is at times jarring. Whimsical humor, appealing music, and consummate performance skills here help with the fusion of this material, but the starkness of the hospital does not always blend happily with the magic of the fairy tale. As fascinating as the science of sleep and sleep disorders, not to mention dreams, can be, discussions of the particulars of restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, and the patients’ panicked struggles for treatment occasionally strike an odd note in this fairy tale musical comedy.

The title character of this distinguished cast, Ms. Vincent is stunning in her bright red dress from the moment she enters the monochromatic clinic in her father’s arms. She combines an appropriate other-worldly innocence with a captivating romantic aura and rock-star vocal gifts, which she displays in several solos and duets with her orderly Prince Charming. Mr. Ryness adds a deft comic touch (The orderly’s particular sleep disorder sends him into a coma when feeling strong emotion.) to his spot-on character work and vocal talents to help make all three romantic duets — “Drifting,” “Awake,” and “I Dare Say I’m in Love” — highlights of the show.

Bob Stillman’s King father is poignant and sympathetic as he wonders how to give his beloved daughter freedom to live her life in a world of risk and danger. “I Think You Understand,” sung to his sleeping daughter, has a rich, appealing James Taylor ballad quality.

As the doctor, taking on the role of avenging evil fairy in the unfolding of the Sleeping Beauty tale, Ms. Lewis-Evans becomes a powerful comical and dramatic focal point of the action whenever she’s on stage and contributes a couple of show-stopping numbers: “Uninvited” ( She wasn’t invited to the baby Beauty’s christening, hence the fatal curse!) and “The Wheel Goes Round,” as she exacts revenge with her giant spinning wheel in an exhilarating first act finale.

The four patients constitute a comical and interesting chorus and also create dynamic individual characters, each with his/her own quirks and compulsions. Besides providing first-rate support to most of the scenes, they are an integral element in the action of the play. They populate both the clinic and, through their mysterious participation in Beauty’s dreams, the fairy tale world of the show.

Ultimately, Sleeping Beauty Wakes seems to be all about having the courage to open up those parts of us that we have shut down, to be fully awake in our lives. The extraordinary collaboration of artists featured here — performers, writers, composers, designers, directors — provides striking manifestation of the transformative power of the creative imagination in awaking us all to the magic of the world.

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