The Arden’s ‘Light Princess’ musical for children isn’t so light after all

When is a kid’s show not a kid’s show? Pretty much since Philadelphia playwrights Tony Lawton and Alex Bechtel accidentally wandered into the genre with their first collaboration, “The Light Princess,” which begins April 5 at Arden Children’s Theatre.

Adapted from a story by George MacDonald, with Philadelphia thespian Steve Pacek as its director, “The Light Princess” — “about a girl who, like Peter Pan, can’t grow up, and may not want to,” says Lawton — finds its title character (played by Brett Robinson) under a curse which destroys her sense of gravity, physically and emotionally. “Her body floats like a balloon; she can’t take anyone or anything seriously,” says Lawton. “One corollary of her inability to take people seriously is she has no empathy, though she is affectionate. She falls in love with the Prince, which weakens the spell, but in order for it be broken, her heart has to be broken too, without her being destroyed in the process.”

Sounds just like an Arden children’s musical, one that comes with the reputation of smarts and complexity. “I’ve admired Arden’s children’s theater because it’s held to the same standards as their standard fare,” says Bechtel. “The plays there are just as nuanced as their work for adults.”

The “Princess” process began when actor/writer Lawton invited sound designer/music director Bechtel to collaborate due to the latter’s “facility and imagination,” says Lawton. “Also, he is a smart and cool guy.”

Lawton yearned to do a family tale suitable for musical stages since adapting the writings of explosive spiritual scribe C.S. Lewis (“The Screwtape Letters,” “The Great Divorce”) for solo shows over a decade ago. “Lewis and the group of writers loosely associated with him [e.g. MacDonald, Tolkien] I have loved for years,” says Lawton. “They’re suitable material for a musical because of their fantastical and fun elements. Of all MacDonald’s excellent fairy tales, ‘Light Princess’ is the brightest in tone. I wanted to give audiences the substance of his great spiritual insight, but also the pleasure of his sense of whimsy.”

One Independence Foundation grant, a 2015 FringeFest showcase and a look-see from Terry Nolen and Matt Decker of the Arden (to say nothing of Lawton’s longtime relationship there, 20 shows since 1996, with Nolen directing over half of them) led to “The Light Princess” becoming a family fantasy musical.

Bechtel says that the opportunity to produce the show as “children’s theater” solidified the target audience in a very specific way. “We had set out initially to make a show that could appeal to people of all ages, yet in doing this for kids, the heart of the piece remained intact,” states the composer. “We didn’t dumb down the show at all.”

Along with making “Light Princess” kid-friendly (removing songs its composers say had gentle innuendo), another highlight of the production is that each actor plays a musical instrument in the grand tradition of ancient theater — save for one actor. “The hybrid of acting and storytelling -— presentational and representational -— brings us back, to the roots of theater; Homer chanting the Iliad, shamans sitting around a fire,” says Lawton. “Alex acts, plays and sings. He plays the Witch and the Prince, villain and hero, which is a fun set of opposites. I carry the narration and play a lot of minor characters. We all move some furniture, but I move the most. That’s what I get for not learning to play an instrument.”

“The Light Princess”
April 5-May 28
The Arden Theatre
40 N. Second St.

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