Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. This week, the Hanslick Girls discuss a new musical adaptation of a children’s book, and attempt not to mention the other adaptation of it. Let’s hear what they had to say…
Eleanor stood first, before the crowd did. She was accustomed to the Seattle trend – standing ovations were more common here than in Chicago. The applause rattled the dark walls of the Center Theatre, the wide-thrust space where Book-It Rep made their home. Dania and Gwen clapped politely, eventually joining Eleanor at their feet when the rising crowd began to block their view of the actors.
“I feel like I need to go read the book now,” Dania said, grabbing her coat. “There was a lot I didn’t remember before.”
Eleanor pulled on a scarf. “Well, it’s very different to the movie. The entire scene where they go to real-world Wales, that’s in the book but not the movie.”
“It makes sense,” Gwen said. “Book-It wouldn’t be interested in adapting the movie. They’re interested solely in the book.” The trio navigated their way to the lobby, and out to the grounds of the Seattle Center.
“Maybe,” Dania said. “But they’ve gotta know that people know the movie, right? Like, while they’re writing.”
“Perhaps not,” Gwen countered. “Book-It’s shtick is writing their own adaptations using the original words from the book. That’s why characters spend most of the play describing what they’re doing, as they do it. It’s a very specific aesthetic.”
“They only did that a little, though,” Dania said. “Like, it was only before Sophie becomes an old woman, when she’s talking about becoming a hatmaker.”
“Whatever. Most of the later parts of the play were just dialogue.”
“It’s a dialogue-heavy book,” Eleanor clarified. She had re-read the book on their flight to Seattle, in preparation for the show. “Michael’s love affair with Lettie isn’t quite as prominent, and doesn’t happen until much later, too.”
“I think they just wanted to include a love song in there somewhere,” Dania suggested. “Otherwise, it’s sort of a dull story.”
“Well, that’s just because they cut nothing,” Eleanor said. “And it’s three hours long.”
“Also Book-It’s aesthetic,” Gwen clarified. “They aren’t ones to perform abridged versions. My real question is whether this is the first time they’ve worked on a musical. If it’s new territory for them, that would explain some of the issues I had with it.”
Eleanor groaned. “You had issues?”
Thinking back to the performance, Eleanor had heard Gwen laugh a few times. It was clear she didn’t hate the show – naturally, it had been Gwen who convinced Dania to go after Eleanor discovered the show was happening. But save for a few scenes that felt like the play was repeating itself (how many times can Howl leave the castle and return moments later?), she had been swept up in the magic of the story. She could even sense that the production’s more “performative” aspects would appeal to Gwen’s tastes – having actors play the castle itself, marching cantankerously around the stage – or the impactful use of the back wall to frame the actors in shadow against the cyc.
“Sure I had issues,” Gwen continued. “Like you said, it’s far too long, even if that’s par for the course with the company. It also seems a little unclear from scene to scene how everyone’s actions relate. Take the scene with Howl’s magic teacher. It’s not clear why that visit happens until later in the play – which would be fine, but I spent most of the scene waiting for them to give a reason why we were there. Much of the play was like that, spending time in anticipation of the other shoe dropping.”
“Well, maybe that’s intentional,” Eleanor said. “You’re always advocating for more theatrical ‘experiences,’ Gwen. Maybe the intention is to let the audience get lost in the magic and adventure, without really worrying about the logic behind it. It builds suspense.”
“I’m not sure ‘suspense’ is what they’re going for. Still,” Gwen shrugged, “even a fantasy story has to have some direction to its narrative. And I didn’t love the music.”
Eleanor gasped, throwing a hand to her chest. “I loved the music! It’s sweet, it’s simple, it’s woven into the narrative – I mean, you couldn’t toss a single song out of the show without losing what was going on. It was clearly written in tandem with the rest of the show.”
“That’s my question, though,” Gwen wondered, glancing up at Seattle’s skyscrapers. “Book-It writes their adaptations using the original text of the source material. But does that hold for lyrics? That’s why I’d like to know if they’ve written musicals before, because I want to attribute the bumpiness of the lyrics to the composer having to use the real text. Which is difficult for a lyricist to do.”
“I just thought all the music sounded the same,” Dania added. “Like, it’s sorta like Les Miz, you know? Where they take the same melody and put different lyrics over it and you have six new songs. I mean, how many times is a song going to start with…” She raised an arm, artistically. “‘In the land of Ingary…'”
“I agree, and it threw me,” Gwen said. “I know the composer, Justin Huertas. His show Lizard Boy is pretty good, but this sounded like this wasn’t as fleshed out as that score.”
“Maybe it wasn’t,” Eleanor said. She held open the program, to the note from director Myra Platt. “This says she approached him in January to write the adaptation, so the musical has only been in development for about a year at this point. That’s fairly new, right?”
“Very,” Gwen said. “That would explain a lot. Maybe they should have waited another year to put up the full production, and workshopped it a bit more.”
“Well, hold on,” Eleanor halted, gripping the program tighter. “I still think the show was pretty good. I enjoyed the ideas in it, the storytelling. I mean, if you’re not comparing it to the movie…”
Eleanor glared at Dania, who seemed confused to be threatened.
“…then it’s a fine family adventure story that holds up on its own. Maybe it could use polish, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t shine right now.”
“Well, who’s not going to compare it to the movie?” Dania said. “Everyone has seen the movie. Not as many people have read the book.”
“I haven’t,” Gwen said. “Perhaps I should have. But then again, the best adaptations are ones where you don’t need the source material for context.”
“But you’ve seen the movie?” Dania prodded.
Gwen, caught, glanced at Dania. “No, not the movie either.”
“I’m just looking at the show from a purely objective theatre point of view,” Gwen explained. “As far as I’m concerned, the musical is all that matters.”
“Well, anyway,” Dania continued, sending a glance of her own to Gwen. “As the representative of people who like the movie, the show is basically fine, except way different. That lead girl who plays Sophie is the best part, hands down.”
“Oh, hands way down,” Eleanor agreed. “Hands on the ground. Hands embedded in the floor. I did not doubt for one moment that she was a 90-year-old woman.”
“They handled her transformation very simply,” Gwen said. “No makeup, just her own physicality. And yet it works.”
“Not to mention she’s the perfect foil for Howl, in all his edgy, gothic edginess,” Eleanor continued, with a grin. “You get the sense that her personality is rubbing off on him, and that’s what changes him, rather than her just being along for the ride as he matures.”
“It’s testament to the performers, Sara Porkalob and Michael Feldman. They’re certainly the standouts in a generally strong cast.”
“Howl isn’t the best singer,” Dania interjected.
“No matter,” Gwen continued, her head in the program. “His acting makes up for it. Plus Kate Jaeger as the Witch of the Waste is delightfully hammy, not to forget about Lamar Legend – great name, by the way – as Calcifer. Talk about physicality in performance…” She wiggled her fingers, simulating flames.
“Shame he couldn’t move away from the boxes he was sitting on,” Dania said. “He’s much more mobile in the movie.”
“Different adaptation, different rules,” Eleanor said. “Moving him is a big deal in the book.”
“Anyhow,” Gwen said. “It was fine. Though I’d say the script needs some tightening before it can truly stand on its own.”
“Yeah,” Dania said. “I mean, it can’t be easy to write something like this. And I wasn’t sitting there thinking, ‘ugh, is this over yet’ at any point.”
Gwen squinted. “I might have thought that once or twice.”
“Well, you’re picky,” Dania chided. “I don’t know, it was fine. Not walking away upset that I saw it.”
“Well, then,” Eleanor chimed in. “I suppose, as the only person who’s read the book, I was a little more into it. In general, it’s a competent translation of the story to the stage, even if the set could maybe have more detail, or if you think the songs could improve…”
“It’s merely my opinion,” Gwen said. “But it is my opinion.”
“Well, I had fun,” Eleanor concluded. “Thanks for coming with, guys.”
“No trouble,” Gwen said. “Thanks for finding it.”
“Are we really walking all the way to the hotel?” Dania asked.
“It’s only a few more blocks.”
Dania grumbled. She silently wished she could walk through a door and magically arrive home – then close the door and reopen it on a brand new place. Somewhere exotic. Like Wales.
Image Credit: Book-It Repertory/Alabastro Photography