Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: DECEMBER 5, 2008
You’ve got your basic fairy tale elements: an unhappy Princess, a bachelor Prince, an overbearing mother. A contest, a pea. Hans Christian Andersen personified… with an African twist. It’s all set in fantasy kingdoms on the Dark Continent . And what’s under the mattress isn’t your garden-variety legume; a black-eyed pea determines which princess is a “blue-blooded Sistuh ” who’ll win Prince Gallant and become the Queen. Well, that was the conception of multi-talented Karole Foreman when she started adapting “The Princess and the Pea” years ago, and came up with a musical that won this year’s Edgerton Foundation Award for New American Plays. The piece has gone through some rocky roads and considerable creative changes, but “The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea” is now getting a delightful world premiere at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Framed as flamboyant storytelling by a traveling African theater troupe, it’s kind of a trunk-show, with large, colorful box-like structures wheeled around to demarcate playing spaces, and the cast putting costume elements on top of their ragtag clothes. The music, by composer and arranger Andrew Chukerman , is bracing and energetic. The onstage six-piece band is terrific and the voices are spectacular. The book, by Kirsten Childs, still needs shaping. The first act is a bit sluggish, and there are too many fantastical elements: a ghostly mother, a mysterious blue light, a boar’s hoof amulet, a pea-juice allergy, which make for convoluted exposition and explanation.
The titular Princess is Quelie of Kheba . She’s restless and wants to be free, especially since her father has arranged a marriage to a boring dud. With her dead mother’s approval, she runs away to the nearby kingdom of Torel , to enter a Challenge Dance competition. At the same time, the contest for the true-blood/blue-blood princess is taking place. Quelie is part of that too, though the legendary 20-mattress bed actually plays a pretty small role in her story. Once she comes face to face with Prince Gallant, they fall instantly in love. So do the cousins of each of the royals, though envious and conniving Hena doesn’t know it at first. After several missed connections and a cure, everyone winds up happily united at the end. It’s not a Grimm fairy tale, after all.
There’s a strong element of the magical here – including the magic of theater. Just the bare-bones basics of telling a story. And singing bouncy, stirring, sometimes electrifying R&B, pop-rock and gospel songs. But the production, the largest the San Diego Rep has ever mounted, only gives the impression of simplicity. Under the direction of Stafford Arima , and the choreography of Todd Underwood, there’s a stage-full of Broadway pros, talented locals, high-energy dance and a great deal of fun to be had by actors and audiences alike. Here’s to a long life and a “Happy ever after” for this budding Princess of a new musical.
“The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea” runs through December 21 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza .
©2008 PAT LAUNER