WASHINGTON — World premiere musicals at Arena Stage should get everyone’s attention.
Best case scenario, they follow the path of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which debuted at Arena Stage in 2015 before becoming a Tony-winning smash on Broadway. Worst case scenario, D.C. audiences have at least seen something fresh, daring and creative. It’s a win-win either way.
And so arrives “Snow Child,” making its world premiere at Arena Stage now through May 20.
“It’s based on a folk tale that is prevalent in many different cultures, specifically any area where the climate is very cold, very aggressive and very challenging,” actress Christiane Noll said. “A childless couple builds a little snowman and it comes to life and changes their lives.”
Adapted by John Strand from Eowyn Ivey’s Pulitzer-finalist novel, the story follows Mabel (Christiane Noll) and Jack (Matt Bogart) in 1922 Alaska. Grieving the loss of their unborn child, they hope for a miracle and build a tiny snowman. Suddenly, a mysterious young girl (Fina Strazza) arrives. Did their snowman magically come to life? Or is it merely a coincidence?
“There is a lot of mystery about her,” Noll said. “You’re not really sure if what you’re seeing is something that actually happened or is something that they all think has happened. You get a sense of what the characters think, but as an audience member, you don’t know if it’s real.”
The time period is important not only for overall atmospherics but also for gender dynamics.
“She set it in 1922 Alaska, which was the beginning of the homesteaders,” Noll said. “But 1922 is also important because back then you had very specific male roles and very specific female roles, but Alaska had no rules, a new frontier, so this couple has to reinvent themselves.”
Visually, expect wool costumes, cabin set pieces and wintry backdrops.
“There are projections, the lighting, the soundscape,” Noll said. “There is two different kinds of snow. There is a frozen river that you watch crack. … There is Alpenglow, which I don’t know if you’ve spent anywhere far, far north, but there is a two-minute window at sunset where the lights change. The sunset is so vivid unlike any place in the world, where the clouds and mountains and light all do this beautiful little dance that creates colors you’ve never seen.”
This Alaskan atmosphere is filled with wildlife brought to life by intricate puppets.
“There’s puppetry because we have a lot of wildlife, but in a very elegant, simplistic, yet beautifully imagined way,” Noll said. “We have a fox, we have a trumpeter swan, and we have a monstrously huge draft horse. The first entrance that thing makes, you can hear and feel the audience [gasp]. The puppeteers get more applause than anybody else!”
Along with the visuals, the music also captures the setting thanks to composer Bob Banghart.
“The music really creates a time and place,” Noll said. “Bob Banghart started the Alaskan Folk Festival, so he is not only self-taught on pretty much every instrument with strings, but he also builds and designs them. … There is mandolin, banjo, guitar, upright bass, fiddle and keyboard. Then we’ve got a moose jaw! It’s a percussion instrument made from a moose jaw. He brought it down with him from Alaska, so you’re hearing the sounds of Alaskan music.”
These unique instrumentals are married with the Broadway lyrics of Georgia Stitt.
“Georgia Stitt, New York musical theater chick, has been charged with not just doing the lyrics, but also the golden thread that twines and ties together that specific sound into something that is more dramatic and palpable for a theatrical experience,” Noll said. “The music is a really beautiful hybrid between the traditional Alaskan string-band sound and the classic contemporary musical theater storytelling, weaved together in … a perfect little hybrid.”
Together, the music and lyrics combine for all-new musical numbers.
“I get to scream at the top of my lungs for this one number called ‘So Much Love,’ where you get to hear the specifics of Mabel’s entire journey. It’s quite a powerhouse number and I get to yodel at the top of my lungs for a little bit,” Noll said. “There’s one we do around a dinner table that is more of a hootenanny feel to it and another around a campfire, very celebratory. Matt gets to do one where he’s hunting a moose that’s very funny. … Moose against Man!”
The entire exercise is a fitting choice by artistic director Molly Smith, who hails from Alaska. She commissioned this as part of her ambitious Power Plays initiative, staging 25 new works over the next ten years, with each representing a different decade in American history.
“This is her 20th anniversary year,” Noll said. “Prior to this, she was the head of Perseverance Theater, which is up in Alaska. That’s where she came from, so Alaska is part of her. So for the people that know her, they’ll feel like they’re watching the embodiment of Molly on stage.”
Find more details on the theater website. Check out our full chat with Christiane Noll below: