The best stories begin with “Once upon a time.”
“Fairytales are not insubstantial things,” said Mark Booher, artistic director of PCPA Theaterfest in Santa Maria. “The stories that we learn in our youth become the lens through which we view the world.”
That’s especially true of the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen, the legendary Danish author of “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Princess and the Pea.” A contemporary of Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm, Andersen wrote more than 150 fairytales that Booher said have become part of our collective consciousness.
Andersen’s life and work are the focus of “My Fairytale,” which celebrates its American premiere later this month at Solvang Festival Theater. The PCPA Theaterfest production features music and lyrics by celebrated Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz, whose credits include “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked.”
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“Stephen Schwartz is a living legend,” cast member Lesley McKinnell said. “To work hand-in-hand with him has definitely been an amazing experience.”
Imaginative and interesting
Danish director-producer Flemming Enevold originally mounted “My Fairytale” — “Mit Eventyr” in Danish — in 2005 as part of Denmark’s bicentennial celebration of Andersen’s birth. He hired American-born screenwriter Philip LaZebnik to write the book.
LaZebnik then approached his collaborator on “Pocahontas” and “The Prince of Egypt,” Stephen Schwartz.
“I found the whole way the story was told really imaginative and interesting,” recalled the composer, who wrote several songs for the production that were translated from English to Danish. The musical also features additional songs by James and Adam Price and The Saffri Duo.
Two years later after “My Fairytale” premiered in Denmark, Booher encountered the play while searching for a production to coincide with Solvang’s centennial celebration. “My Fairytale” felt like the perfect fit for PCPA, he said.
He teamed up with executive producer Michael Jackowitz to bring Stephen Schwartz and his son, director Scott Schwartz, to the Central Coast. (The pair previously worked together on the opera “Séance on a Wet Afternoon,” which premiered in 2009 in Santa Barbara.)
Set in 1846, “My Fairytale” portrays Hans Christian Andersen as a writer still struggling with his hardscrabble past as the son of a cobbler and a washerwoman.
“His big want is to be accepted and loved and liked,” said Kevin Cahoon, who plays the author. “It’s kind of a common human trait.”
Torn between his desire to be accepted by intellectual Danish society and his talent for storytelling, Andersen embarks on a journey through a fantastic world populated by characters from his fairytales. There, he encounters such familiar figures as the Little Match Girl and the Snow Queen.
“It’s a journey into not just his imagination but into the ethical and personal choices he has to make,” Booher said. “As soon as you enter the human psyche that opens a lot of doors for me. It’s a very exciting place for artists to reside and play in.”
“My Fairytale” also delves into Andersen’s unrequited love for opera singer Jenny Lind, known to 19th-century audiences as “The Swedish Nightingale.” She’s played by McKinnell, who also appears as a shepherdess, a princess and a robber girl.
“Each time, she’s representing a different challenge to Hans,” the actress explained, noting that each role comes with its own fabulous costume designed by Alejo Vietti.
McKinnell and Cahoon said that “My Fairytale,” which features an eclectic mix of musical styles ranging from contemporary European pop to musical theater to opera, presents a vocal challenge as well as a dramatic one.
“You have to serve the material the best way you can,” Cahoon said.
The rest of the cast includes Erik Stein as Andersen’s Shadow, Marissa Dinsmoor as The Boy, and Karin Hendricks, Andrew Philpot and Sam Zeller as three theater producers.
As the actors have been learning their parts, the production team has been grappling with adapting “My Fairytale,” originally a big-budget, high-tech production designed for a proscenium-style theater, to better fit PCPA’s theaterin-the-round setting.
“We’re dealing with very iconic fantastical characters. Just figuring out what they look like and how they move is one of the challenges,” Scott Schwartz said.
Take the cruel barnyard birds who torment the Ugly Duckling. They’ll be played by giant puppets designed by Emily DeCola.
PCPA’s production features choreography by Michael Jenkinson and sets by Tom Buderwitz. Callum Morris serves as musical director, as scenic designer, Jen “Z” Zornow as lighting designer and Walter T.J. Clissen as sound designer.
Although launching a production like “My Fairytale” isn’t easy, Booher said, “Our most exciting creative work always entails a level of risk.”
Last August, the theater company produced the world premiere of “Invierno” by José Cruz González, a play that incorporates elements of California history. This year’s production pays tribute to another important aspect of Central Coast culture, Booher said.
“This was not only a wonderful opportunity to bring a Danish piece to Solvang in time for the centennial,” he said, but also a chance to “do work that’s reflective of the communities we serve work that’s original and speaks in a fresh voice.”