John Coulbourn, Toronto Sun
In fairness, it should be stated right off the top that Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince has been my favourite children’s story since – well, since the dark ages, back when I was myself a child. All of which could, one supposes, constitute a double-edged sword for someone who sets out to adapt that particular part of Wilde’s literary legacy to the stage. Sure, it’s nice to have a critic who loves your story, but at the same time, in the fast and loose world of adaptations, one runs the risk of leaving out that critic’s favourite bits. In this particular instance, let me hasten to assure writer/composer/lyricist Leslie Arden that, as long as she has captured the tremendous heart of the story, she’ll have my endorsement.
She did, so she does – an endorsement that certainly doesn’t rank up there with the Chalmers Award the work has already earned, but offered with all sincerity nonetheless. In a production that opened a limited run in the studio of the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People, Arden and fellow members of The Children’s Trio treat Wilde’s timeless story with the respect it so richly deserves, while at the same time crafting it into a lovely and unpretentious little piece of theatre capable of holding youngsters and adults alike utterly spellbound.
In this LKTYP presentation, Arden and her cohorts have kept things deliberately simple, cleaving to the essential elements of the story of the gilded royal statue and his devoted friend, the swallow, at virtually every turn. At the same time, they’ve found just the right golden moments, it seems, to enrich and enliven things with Arden’s sophisticated tunes, served up by the composer from an on-stage piano.
The music may be sophisticated, but the production isn’t. Like the story that inspired it, this is a deceptively simple affair that demands and gets the full co-operation and complicity of an imaginative audience that certainly includes, but is not limited to, the recommended age of six and up. The Prince’s bejeweled and towering statue is represented only by his pedestalled feet, while the swallow is an oversized hand-puppet, visibly manipulated by designer/performer Cathy Elliott. Sherry Garner rounds out the trio in the role of narrator, while Allison Grant enlivens them all with simple choreography. Together, they put the emphasis squarely on Wilde’s magical story of social conscience and enduring friendship – which, of course, is right where the emphasis belongs.
Best of all, it is a theatrical piece that works on so many levels that, should someone decide to give it broader exposure to a broader audience (working, of course, from a broader financial base), The Happy Prince could be happy on just about any stage and with any audience.
Endowment for the Arts were really on the ball, it would pick up this show in its current form and tour it to every military base in the country.
Robert Cushman, National Post
Leslie Arden is the best hope among Canadian writers of musicals. In addition to her large-scale shows (best-known: The House of Martin Guerre), she has a portfolio of miniature musicals for children. The Happy Prince, now playing at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre, is one of them and it is a delight. Intended for six-and-uppers, it also offers more to adults than most of this theatre’s teenage shows offer to anyone.
Arden’s piece is a dramatization, both faithful and imaginative, of the Oscar Wilde story about the pangs and glories of the compassionate heart. For those whose memories of the original have, like mine, grown somewhat vague: A golden statue stands surveying a town, the one its subject ruled over when alive. Much admired locally for his splendour and his uncomplainingness (so they call him “happy”), the Prince is actually in anguish over the poverty and misery that were screened from him in life.
So he sends a swallow, which for personal reasons has delayed his migration, to relieve individual cases with the ruby from his sword and the sapphires that were his eyes. Finally, he has the swallow strip him of his gold leaf and distribute it at large. The swallow, refusing to desert the prince, dies of the cold.
The statue, now blind and shabby, is pulled down by the town council (close relatives, apparently, of those who governed Hamelin when the Pied Piper passed through) and burned – all but its leaden heart, which broke when the swallow died but, like Joan of Arc’s, resists incineration. Prince and bird are taken up to Heaven.
I have undoubtedly made that sound mawkish, but Wilde didn’t, and neither does Arden. The story is one of the best things its author wrote, and the musical is as witty and moving as its source.
The Children’s Trio, a troupe founded by Arden, has originated five of these adaptations since 1982. Each has a cast of three, including the author-composer-pianist, who is also the very smart director. Her two colleagues here are Sherry Garner, who does most of the narrating, and Cathy Elliott, also responsible for the set and costume designs, which are done on the most stylish shoestring imaginable.
There is pleasure just in the perfectly balanced colours of the three players’ cravats, or in the sight of them in the top townspeople’s top hats. (Arden wears hers with particular flair.) The Prince himself is represented by a pair of golden feet; the swallow is an intricate hand puppet, manipulated by Elliott. She also supplies its voice and is equally eloquent speaking the lines or flapping the wings.
The swallow’s initial delay in leaving town is caused by its having taken a fancy to a graciously waving reed in the river, much to the discust of its friends. “This,” they sing, “is a really dumb affair/She is certainly not in his class/There are plenty of swallows everywhere/But he’s fallen in love with grass!” – the abrupt descent to basics signalling one of Arden’s most pointed meetings of words and music.
Humour and yearning alternate in her songs here – and sometimes fuse. One of the Prince’s initial beneficiaries is a young playwright, hungry and creatively blocked, struggling to complete a commission and remembering all the good advice he was ever given: “Somebody told you it’s yours for the asking/If you haven’t got it, then you haven’t tried/Someone said you’d get out what you put into it/Somebody lied.” (Arden studied with Stephen Sondheim, and it shows.)
Following Wilde’s text and expanding on it, she works in patter choruses and a sea shanty. Everything takes us further into the story, and it’s an accomplished and beguiling journey. Children should take their parents.