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Theater review: 'Sleeping Beauty Wakes' at La Jolla Playhouse

July 27, 2011 |  7:00 am

Sleeping beauty wakes 1 
The most delightful thing about “Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” the musical about a princess who rises in a state-of-the-art sleep clinic after a 900-year-long slumber, is the way it whisks a classic fairy tale to a modern day locale that freely mixes medical science with pixie dust. The potential of this winning conceit isn't quite realized, but the inherent charm of the piece captivates our imagination even as the flaws peek through.

The show, which is playing at the La Jolla Playhouse in a co-production with New Jersey's McCarter Theatre Center, is a retooled version of a musical that had its world premiere in 2007 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. That earlier staging, a collaboration between Center Theatre Group and Deaf West Theatre, was a more intimate yet far more cumbersomely multilayered affair.

This new production, directed by Rebecca Taichman, simplifies the storytelling. The book by Rachel Sheinkin (a Tony winner for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) has been streamlined and the pop score by composer Brendan Milburn and lyricist Valerie Vigoda (of the indie band GrooveLily) has undergone a major overhaul. The newfound clarity is welcome, but the musical is still searching for its identity.

Sleepling beauty wakes 2 “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” is a small show that would probably be more at home in a black box venue than on the large proscenium stage of La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre. The top-notch design team (with standout work by scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind) keeps things spare, agile and 21st century, but the presentational quality of the production sets up expectations that the work isn't prepared to fulfill. Better to stumble upon this one in a pocket space where the amplification isn't so alienating and the actors don't have to resort to gusty theatrics to make their characters known. A cozier approach all around would draw out the musical's offbeat originality.

Four sleep disorder patients (played by Steve Judkins, Jimmy Ray Bennett, Adinah Alexander and Carrie Manolakos) have checked into a clinic run by a doctor (Kecia Lewis-Evans) whose bedside manner is that of a gruff researcher. A hospital orderly (Bryce Ryness) offers more congenial assistance, but he suffers from an unusual type of narcolepsy — whenever he experiences great joy, he passes out.

Just as the insomniacs have been wired for their nighttime monitoring, a father (Bob Stillman) rushes in with his somnolent daughter, Rose (Aspen Vincent), who hasn't opened her eyes in an eon. He wants the doctor to read her dreams, and though he hasn't any insurance, his kingly presence and wad of cash help get the girl admitted.

A funny thing happens that first night at the clinic — Rose's dream-life begins to influence the REM cycle of those snoozing beside her. Her back story gets acted out, with the doctor playing the role of the bad fairy whose spell (yes, there's still a nefarious spindle) sinks Rose into her interminable coma.

All this incongruous commotion inspired by “Sleeping Beauty” author Charles Perrault is baffling to those who have put their faith in electrodes and MRIs. But the handsome orderly has nonetheless fallen head over heels for the beauteous Rose, and though he lacks the traditional pedigree, his princely peck on the cheek liberates her from her catatonic prison.

Of course, happiness always comes with a hitch: Rose's awakening has an adverse effect on her father, whose terrifying seniority catches up with him as his daughter matures into an adult woman. (Psychoanalysts naturally have had a field day with this sexual dimension of the traditional story.)

As the romantic leads, Vincent, who blends purity with pertness, and Ryness, who stumbles around winsomely (and gets assigned the most kinetic moves of Doug Varone's choreography), are easy to root for. And the eccentricity of the cast, including Lewis-Evans' patient-avoiding doctor and Stillman's gentle father trying to conceal his anachronistic existence under a kindly cardigan, adds a nice touch. But something's missing in the ensemble's chemistry — the grand reaction mysteriously fizzles.

Sheinkin's book does its best to humorously glide over implausibilities that are more pronounced in a contemporary setting. The fey tone, however, precludes the special gravity that makes fairy tales such a profound experience for readers. Sheinkin can be counted on for cleverness, but rarely does her smiling ingenuity tantalize the unconscious. Everything is a bit too self-aware.

Milburn and Vigoda's songs, played by an unseen pit orchestra conducted by music director, orchestrator and keyboardist James Sampliner, are by turns sprightly and sentimental. The group numbers are more inventive than the rather saccharine solo turns, but it was difficult to judge the score through such a distancing microphone system. The clobbering sound quality seemed utterly discordant with the delicate story.

Lewis-Evans compounds the problem by going into power-ballad mode as the bad fairy, making it seem as though GrooveLily was aspiring to write the next “Wicked.” It's not the actress' fault — she's simply following the production's lead. But it's an indication that no one quite knows what type of musical “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” is meant to be.

Right now the show's ambition seems to be pulling the work away from its strength as a musical comedy chamber piece. The enchantment is visible, but too much of it remains trapped in a glass case, like a waxwork Sleeping Beauty at a theme park.

--Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

"Sleeping Beauty Wakes," La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 28. $53-$85. (858) 550-1010 or Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Photos: Top: Bryce Ryness and Aspen Vincent. Bottom: Kecia Lewis-Evans (center) and Vincent with the cast of La Jolla Playhouse's production of "Sleeping Beauty Wakes" Credit: T. Charles Erickson