Musicals are a challenging art form requiring extensive collaboration among creators and performers to come into existence, let alone to be successful. So it’s no small feat that Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati has been staging world-premiere musical fairy tales during the holidays for 20 years. This time around, playwright Joe McDonough and composer David Kisor have adapted and updated a less-than-familiar Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Dancing Princesses. It’s one of their best, most entertaining creations.
Staged by ETC Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers, it’s the story of five fiercely independent and uniquely imagined princess sisters (the Brothers Grimm version had a dozen, but that would be a crowd on ETC’s smallish stage) who ruin their shoes nightly by sneaking off for dance parties in a dream kingdom. Their father, a stern single-dad named King Aldrin (Ken Early), is mystified and perturbed, as is his sister-in-law Zilda (Deb G. Girdler), their harsh aunt and governess, but the girls aren’t giving it up. Pharron (Michael Gerard Carr), a veteran soldier, is clued in to the situation by a mysterious, magical woman (Sara Mackie) — somewhere between a witch and a fairy godmother — who urges him to step in and solve the mystery. Three more characters keep things lively: Joziam (Michael G. Bath), the king’s counselor and wannabe jester, and a pair of klutzy, love-besotted cobblers (Darnell Pierre Benjamin and Andrew Maloney).
Kisor’s score contains 33 brief, diverse musical numbers, ranging from sprightly to soulful. It’s his most clever and inventive score yet, hopscotching across umpteen dance rhythms. That keeps the cast almost constantly in motion, spiritedly organized by three veteran choreographers — Dee Anne Bryll, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s Patti James and Cincinnati Ballet’s Victoria Morgan. It makes for a visually entertaining production, enhanced by Brian c. Mehring’s three-tiered, Gothic-arched medieval scenic design and Reba Senske’s riotously imagined costumes. Each princess has a personal color scheme, for gowns, sleepwear and even bedspreads.
The princesses — played by Maggie Cramer, Maya Farhat, Rebecca Wei Hsieh, Samantha Russell and Brooke Steele — are an amusing quintet. They’re rambunctious, willful and yearning to learn about the world, despite protective adults whose backstories explain their reticence. Thanks to Pharron’s intercession, everyone’s desires are fulfilled and, of course, all resolves happily ever after — it is a fairy tale, after all.
There’s so much energy, wonderfully harnessed by Meyers and the choreographers, that the show’s two hours (including an intermission) speed by. In her director’s note, Meyers writes, “Directing a world premiere is an exquisite adventure.” I suspect holiday audiences will agree. It’s onstage through Dec. 30. More info and tickets at ensemblecincinnati.org.