(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
Summer Stock Austin has a fine tradition of not only providing a performance opportunity for Texas’ most talented young actors, but also, with their Theatre-for-All shows, of creating theater appropriate for younger audience members.
This tradition continues this year with the world premiere of a new family-friendly musical, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” written by Allen Robertson and Damon Brown, with music, lyrics, and direction from Robertson, playing through Aug.13 in the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theatre.
Loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name (which brought toys to life a century and a half before Pixar did so), “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” tells the story of Lucas, a tin soldier in love with a ballerina princess, and Zoey, a rag-doll who chafes against being at the bottom rung of the toys’ caste system simply because of the material she is made out of. Together, the two embark on a quest out of the workshop where they were created, with Lucas looking for a cure to the disease that threatens to kill the princess and Zoey searching for a place where she will be valued and loved.
Connor Barr, as Lucas, and Lena Owens, as Zoey, are both charming and warm throughout, providing a welcoming overtone to the show that keeps kids in the audience feeling safe even when the plot gets somewhat frightening or sinister. The welcome appearances throughout of comedic dynamo David Peña, in multiple roles, also help to create this atmosphere.
Much of the story of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, though, is quite dark, dealing as it does with themes of death, war, abandonment, and existential angst.
This is reflected, literally, in murky, atmospheric lighting from Scott Vandenberg, and simple, portable black set pieces from scenic designer Theada Bellenger. As such, the show might be a little intense for the youngest of children (though it’s important to remember that kids are often made of sterner stuff than we think, a lesson imparted by this very show).
The moral of “Tin Soldier” may go over the heads of young audience members, but the values it espouses – reaffirming the power of friendship and of inner strength and determination – will hit home with parents. Both, though, will enjoy the simple, effective, classic tricks of theatricality that the production employs (such as the creation of fire and water through roiling colored sheets).
The show’s biggest deficit, however, is the pre-recorded music. Although it is enticing to hear a new musical theater score that can utilize the kinds of audio tricks a live orchestra might not be able to replicate, the resulting audio mix frequently drowns out the performers’ voices, leaving the lyrics unheard and unclear.
On the whole, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” is something rather unique – a full musical aimed at all age groups that doesn’t condescend and which tells a somewhat epic story within the confines of a black box theater.
Children’s theater needs more of these kinds of work, and hopefully Summer Stock Austin will continue to create and produce them for years to come.