In the magical land of Narnia before the advent of the Pevensie children, the White Witch Jadis has the place under a century-long thrall in which it is “always winter but never Christmas.”
But as the action unfolds in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the first book of C.S. Lewis' seven-book series, now onstage at The Rose Theater in Omaha as the musical “Narnia,” and starring four Sarpy County actors, good ultimately wins out. And the denizens of the fantastical land, like we earthbound sufferers of winter, are finally blessed with a holiday respite.
“It's a story that appeals to everyone,” said Jimmy Nguyen, a freshman at Bellevue West High School who takes the role of Dog in the production. “Kids, adults. It's relatable. It's a story about love, caring, joy and how there's still hope in the midst of adversity. Plus, it is winter and it is Christmas and in a lot of ways, this is a Christmas show.”
The Christian allegory of the Narnia tales is a main driver in the stories, but so is the general struggle between forces of good and evil and the themes of sacrifice, redemption and forgiveness.
Like Lewis' novels, which the writer and theologian did intend for a younger audience but which he also expected would appeal to adults, the musical version of “Narnia” has been designed, like all of The Rose's productions, to serve as a shared moment for children and parents and a chance to talk about the lessons implicit in the action for young and old.
Max Hauze, who plays Edmund Pevensie, the youngest Pevensie boy and the one who falls under the White Witch's sway and nearly ends up betraying his siblings as they tumble into the fantasy land of Narnia through a magical wardrobe, said his role is one from which a lot can be gleaned.
“(Edmund is) really not a nice person,” said Hauze, a junior at Papillion-La Vista South High School who is appearing in his fifth production at The Rose. “He sells out his family for a little candy and he's willing to sell out all of Narnia for more candy and some power. But at the end of the day, as bad as he is, there's still some good in him and the story becomes how that good is brought out.”
Indeed, with pitched battles between Jadis and the true lord of Narnia, the lion Aslan, and the themes of betrayal and sacrifice, at first glance, “Narnia” might seem a bit overborne for younger audiences. The target group The Rose is aiming for is 6- to 13-year-olds.
But the actors agreed it's something kids could stand to see brought to the stage in a select and responsible manner.
“I am living what the Narnians are living,” Nguyen said. “We all are. This is life and it's full of difficulties and hardships. I would go see this play with my child because it is saying that this is life and life is not a Disney movie. This is a good segue toward teaching your children the harder lessons of life. It's a good parent-child moment.”
Furthermore, the addition of song to the storyline, while greeted with suspicion at first by the actors, has turned out to be an asset for pushing the action of the story as the four Pevensie children — Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy — enter the Narnian plane of existence, meet a menagerie of creatures and attempt to reclaim the blasted land from the White Witch.
“I took the 21st century tactic and went right to YouTube,” said Patrick Wolfe of La Vista, who plays the role of Mr. Beaver, a parental figure for the Pevensies in Narnia. “I was totally unfamiliar with the music and I doubt there's really a blockbuster song in there, but there are several that heavily influence the production we have and we have a great gathering of talent to do the music.”
And the effects involved in the battle scenes, along with the addition of other properties — including falling snow — are turning the wide proscenium at The Rose into a veritably perpetual field of action.
Nicklaus Knipe, a senior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a 2009 Bryan High School graduate, who plays the role of Dwarf, said being on the massive Rose stage before the theater's historic gallery and witnessing the larger-than-life effects has been nothing short of a major coup in his theatrical career.
“I'm used to doing shows at school,” Knipe said. “It's a little smaller, more intimate. I haven't been on a proscenium since high school. It's just got this magic in it built in. The sets are great. It's a big production.”
That goes for the costuming, too. Playing animals like the beaver, dog and the mythical dwarf, Wolfe, Nguyen and Knipe undergo a long, artful transformation from their everyday selves to their stage shades.
“We spend an hour getting makeup on, getting mic'd up,” Wolfe said. “And then, you can take it all off in about eight minutes.”
The chance to see the musical unfold, along with the pre- and post-show undertakings, has had the air of magic for the actors, especially Nguyen, who is in his first show at The Rose.
“Seeing it all come to life rather than on a screen, the raw emotion of the stage, has been incredible,” he said.
Nestled somewhere in the song, the sumptuous sets, the outspoken wonder of characters played by community actors, is the underlying, simple story of good and evil, love, salvation, sacrifice and triumph.
“It's timeless,” Hauze said. “There's never a bad time to do a show like this, but in the Christmas season, it seems that much more fitting.”
Said Wolfe: “It reminds us how close to real tragedy we all come if not for the intervention of a few possibly miraculous things. In a story about banding together to see good fight evil, overcoming some pretty significant hurdles, it's a reminder that there is real truth and real good in people.”
“Narnia” opened at The Rose, 2001 Farnam St. in Omaha, on Dec. 6 and will run Fridays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Dec. 29. There is also a special showing of the production on Thursday, Dec. 26 at 7 p.m.
For ticket information, call 402-245-4849 or visit rosetheater.org.