For 14 years, Portland Stage Company has dutifully rounded up the actors, dusted off the sets and props, and put up its annual holiday play, the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol.”
This year, things have changed.
This year, Anita Stewart and her small army of worker bees are opening a brand-new spectacle. Beginning Friday, “The Snow Queen,” based on the fairly tale by Hans Christian Andersen, will turn Portland Stage into a winter wonderland. The theater has scheduled 34 shows of the new production through Christmas Eve, including those for school groups.
The mega production is the largest and most complex show the theater has produced in many years, involving numerous fantasy sets, more than 100 colorful costumes and an ensemble of two dozen actors.
Portland Stage intends to bring this show back on an every-other-year basis, rotating with “A Christmas Carol” as its December offering on the main stage. The off-color Christmas comedy “The Santaland Diaries” remains a lock in the Studio Theater.
“The Snow Queen” offers a complex story about a young girl, Gerda, who is searching for her friend, Kai, who has been bewitched by the Snow Queen. During her journey to find her friend, Gerda receives assistance from a variety of characters and creatures, including a prince and princess, flowers, crows, a reindeer named Ba and a river, among others.
“We’ve been doing ‘A Christmas Carol’ successfully for a number of years, and I was feeling that we needed a change,” said Stewart. “I was looking for something that had a winter theme and that also had some magic to it, but not necessarily a Christmas or holiday theme.”
“The Snow Queen” appealed on many levels. Stewart loved the story, and felt it would translate well on stage. She also liked the fact that it features a strong heroine. “Most of the time, it’s a male hero. But this is a female hero,” she noted.
Perhaps most important, Stewart subscribed to the notion that “The Snow Queen” would appeal to kids and adults alike with its themes of love and friendship — an important element in drawing crowds during the holiday season, when families seek well-rounded, wholesome entertainment.
So far, so good.
Advance ticket sales have been great. Tickets remain for opening night and Saturday night, but both the Saturday and Sunday matinees on opening weekend are sold out.
This show also comes with a host of technical and artistic challenges. Anderson wrote his original story in Danish, which meant that Stewart turned to a variety of translations when she wrote her adaptation.
She also took the leap of including the words of poet Emily Dickinson in various musical passages that appear throughout the play. Dickinson’s poems, which Stewart felt blended well with Andersen’s prose, provide the lyrics for the music in this local adaptation. Hans Indigo Spencer composed the music, and serves as music director.
The scope of the production itself posed another challenge. “The Snow Queen” features seven distinct stories in seven different worlds. That meant the theater’s shops worked overtime to build sets and costumes for each fantasy world.
Further complicating the process was one big practical roadblock. The show that was up previous, “God of Carnage,” had a short, three-week run. Technical director Ted Gallant and his carpentry staff had only two weeks to build sets for “The Snow Queen.” Because of space limitations, Portland Stage can build sets for the next show only while the current show is in production.
The issue wasn’t the number or complexity of the sets, which Stewart designed and helped build, but the short window available for building them. “This is a really big show to build in two weeks,” Gallant said.
Another aspect that vexed the staff briefly was the breakdown of the “God of Carnage” set. It included a huge sandbox that was full of sand. The theater went from sand to snow overnight. It hired a local company to come in and remove the sand with an industrial vacuum.
For costume shop manager Susan Thomas, “The Snow Queen” has been a top-of-mind concern since summer. She designed 100-plus different costumes for this show. After the show was cast, Thomas and her crew spent the heat of the summer thinking about winter as they made the costumes.
The cast for “The Snow Queen” includes many familiar local professional actors, as well several from New York.
Patricia Buckley comes from out of town to play the Snow Queen; she last appeared in Portland for the premiere of “Out of Sterno.” Portland actor Ian Carlsen plays Kai. New York actress Lauren Orkus plays Gerda. This is her Portland Stage debut.
Other local actors with long histories at Portland Stage include Daniel Noel and Sally Wood. Tom Ford, who has appeared many times at Portland Stage, returns in a dual role.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: