You’re probably familiar with the story of Swan Lake—a beautiful princess is turned into a swan as the result of an evil sorcerer’s curse. Originally written as a ballet by Tchaikovsky, the story has been newly reconceived as a musical. Written by Peter Seibert (music, co-book) and Patrick Lundquist (lyrics, co-book), it came to life at the Montalban Theater in Hollywood for a one-night-only world premiere concert performance on December 17th.
Notable theater talents joined forces with an ensemble of 25 singers and the impressive Hollywood Chamber Orchestra for the evening. The lead performers’ credentials are quite impressive. Andrew Lippa, famed composer of such musicals as The Wild Party and Big Fish, performed as the villainous Rothbart, while Luann Aronson took on the role of Phelia, the evil queen. Carrie St. Louis and Carrie Manolakos played Odette and Odile, respectively—quite appropriately, they are best known for playing Glinda and Elphaba in various productions of Wicked. Rounding out the principal cast were newcomer Liam Roberts as Augustin, Mario Jose as Benno, and Blake Segal as Finn. Two dancers, Stephanie Kim and Raymond Ejiofir, performed beautifully throughout the presentation, tying the story back to its ballet roots.
Speaking of the story, it has been altered a bit from Tchaikovsky’s version. In this iteration, Odette is cursed as a baby to be a swan by day, human by night, and her curse in turn protects the kingdom of Swan Lake from war with its neighbor, Bagalia. When Odette’s mother sacrifices herself for her daughter, queen Phelia, Odette’s aunt, takes her in. Odette at first has a friendly relationship with her cousin and step-sister Odile, although it quickly turns contentious when Phelia plots for Odette to marry the evil Rothbart and become queen, a role Odile has spent her entire life preparing for. Of course, there is also the love story—Odette and Augustin, a leader of the rebellious Bagalian refugees, have a meet cute when she sneaks out of the castle one night, but of course he does not know her secret about the form in which she spends her days.
Both the story and the music have all the makings of a Disney-esque spectacle. Enough cannot be said about how special the music truly is—it is both catchy and sweeping in a way that marries traditional musical theater with modern pop. The biggest showstopper is “Inside a Dream,” a duet by Odette and Odile towards the end of act one. St. Louis’s and Manolakos’s vocals were jaw-droppingly good, and the melody was as solid as any Broadway 11 o’clock number. It certainly helped that the orchestra and large chorus added such rich layers to the already beautiful songs, although at times the scale of it almost drowned out the lead performers, a problem that would be easily fixed in a more conventional staging.
A performance of this nature is of course designed to feature the music, which is incredibly strong, particularly for a writing team relatively new to musical theater. Where this show needs work is in its book and story, which often felt confusing and convoluted. Villains came across as rather one-dimensional, but then again that is the case in many a Disney show, if that is indeed the vibe being sought after. It is also very easy to draw parallels with Wicked, considering the importance of the relationship between the two “sisters.” I personally wanted much more of Odile, possibly because Manolakos was definitively the standout of the cast. Her big act two number, “Queen of the Night,” brought the house down, but I longed for a deeper look at the complicated relationship between her and Odette, who is undoubtedly the central character of the show. The black swan and the white swan are so iconic in terms of the legacy of Swan Lake, and this version of the story offers a lot of interesting territory to dive into that felt under-explored. I was personally much more interested in their dynamic than in that of Odette and Augustin, which could easily be replaced with just about any traditional love story between a princess and a prince.
The show is hoping for a full theatrical production in the near future, a goal that seems well within reach. The strength of the score and the name recognition could likely carry it far, and with any luck, some of the spectacular talents involved in this world premiere would stick around.
For information about any future performances as well as a first look and listen at some of the songs, visit http://swanlakemusical.com/.