A beautiful princess. A handsome prince. A wicked queen. And a friendly woodsman who, if he refuses to cut out his best friend's heart, will find himself turned into that most hideous of creatures: SpongeBob SquarePants.
So goes the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's endearing, seriously funny family musical Snow White, a take on the classic fairy tale that's just irreverent enough to satisfy fans of Shrek, yet not so smart-alecky as to irritate those of us who didn't care for Shrek. With book, music, and lyrics by Marc Robin, the show casually upends its source material while staying true to its spirit, and pokes sweetly mean-spirited fun at its Disney-cartoon forebear; copyright laws, as Snow White's characters frequently remind us, may prevent audiences from hearing "Whistle While You Work," but listening to the dwarfs march along to The Wizard of Oz's "Winkie Chant" ("Oh-we-oh, we-o-o-o-o-o-h-h-h-oh") proves a more than acceptable - and hilarious - substitute.
In truth, I'm a little biased toward Robin's piece, because the month I spent acting in 2002's Snow White for Circa '21 was a thoroughly enjoyable kids-show experience; it's a pleasure to report that the show is every bit as entertaining from the other side of the proscenium. It's a bigger pleasure to report that the kids at Saturday's matinée appeared to have an even better time than I did. By nature, an audience composed almost entirely of young uns is about the most honest audience you'll find, and there were times during Snow White when the nearly sold-out house watched the tale unfold with rapt, silent attention. Only a few times, though. Most of the time they were laughing, and with really good reason.
Bill Fabris, the production's director/choreographer, keeps the action moving at a zippy pace, handles the frequently crowded compositions with elegance - in a great joke, just about every "dwarf" here stands taller than Snow White herself - and pulls off a beauty of a special effect when the queen magically transforms into a withered crone. (Aided by Ray Malone's sound design and Josh Tipsword's and Brian Hoehne's lighting, this sequence is legitimately unnerving.) But Fabris' best move was to populate the production with clever, astute comedians who revel in the ridiculousness without (fully) jettisoning the earnestness; Snow White may be a goof, but it's a happily sincere goof.
After her show-swiping turn as an abstinent sexpot in Circa '21's Empty Nest and her Snow White here, Ashley Catherine Schmitt cements her status as 2008's most delightful area-theatre featherbrain. That title, though, merely refers to her roles; the performer herself appears to be wicked smart. Dreamily introducing herself as the tale's ingénue and exuding beaming vacuity, Schmitt is a heavenly parody of Disneyfied innocuousness, and would likely find her perfect match in Andrew J. Smith's grinning, lunkheaded Prince Charming if he would just, you know, notice her; this über-vain royal suggests an unthreatening version of Beauty & the Beast's Gaston, and Smith's prince, bewitched by his own handsomeness, is hysterically, sublimely fatuous. (The actor's stage time is way too brief, but he also delivers a spectacular cameo as a nerdy prop master, who literally gives his heart to the production.)
Laura Brigham, portraying the evil Queen Narcissus, delivers deadpan malevolence with nicely unforced wit and boasts a hugely impressive vocal range; Mark Lingenfelter, as the magic mirror with tap shoes, tosses off sarcastic bon mots with the same inspiring ease with which he dances; Janos Horvath and Bret Churchill, in their roles as the queen's fumbling assistants, open the show on a note of divine silliness, while Churchill cracks up the crowd - and not just the kids - with a series of expert pratfalls.
And to the audience's good fortune, Horvath and Churchill are also cast as dwarfs alongside Adam Michael Lewis, Andrea Moore, Chad S. Parsons, Tristan Layne Tapscott, and John Watkins. It would be ruining some of Snow White's best gags to give away too much about this untraditional septet; suffice it to say that Disney's copyright laws apparently extend to the names of the little people - whose monikers are instead those of famed historical and literary figures - and that the actors in these roles perform with first-rate comic timing and infectious merriment.
There are random bummers; Robin's lyrics are occasionally difficult to hear beneath the overly amplified score, and even at 90 minutes, the show might be about 15 too long (if some audience fidgetiness in Act II was to be trusted). Yet the gorgeously costumed, continually clever Snow White is still a total hoot, and frequently hits notes of absolute gaga joy, as when Schmitt chirps a cheerful ditty to a pair of forest friends. I don't care if it's a Grimm fairy tale or Henrik Ibsen; I'm thinking every play could be substantially improved with the addition of hand puppets.
For tickets, call (309) 786-7733 extension 2.