Does everything have to be about collusion and fake news? The political themes of the day seem inescapable, even in a children’s play based on a fairy tale and set in Qing dynasty China.
The Princess’ Nightingale, playwright Damon Chua’s new adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1843 story The Nightingale, is now playing at SteppingStone Theatre in a smart collaboration with Theater Mu. Randy Reyes directs this tidy production, which runs a quick hour with no intermission.
The Emperor (Nikko Soukup-Raymo) is selecting a new advisor; he's narrowed the choice down to his daughter Hexiao (Natalie Tran) and his son Jai (Max Perdu). Both are asked to prove themselves by acquiring knowledge of the vast empire.
With the help of her mother the Empress (Hope Nordquist), Hexiao befriends a wise nightingale (Kathryn Fumie) who flies far and wide to report what she sees — even when she finds sickness and want. Jai, on the other hand, gets his intelligence from an unseen cadre of Italians who also pose a possible military threat.
Jai and the scheming Minister Wu (Eric Sharp) produce a mechanical bird that tells tall tales, tempting Hexiao to renounce the nightingale and her inconvenient truths. By play's end, the princess is called upon to sharpen both her wits and her sword.
Every court needs its jester, and in this case that's a tiger (Sharp) who converses with his own tail (Kelly Huang) while drooling over the delicious-looking songbird. An ensemble of young performers serve as the creatures of Tiger Valley, a community of suffering peasants, and denizens of the court — rotating through a series of effective costumes by Rhiannon Fiskradatz. A few simple songs advance the story, and they're catchy enough that you might find yourself humming on the way out.
An audience of young children on Wednesday morning seemed, understandably, more interested in the tiger's antics than in the drama of imperial succession. Still, Reyes ensures the storytelling remains lucid, with a dash of theatrical magic that includes lightbox puppetry as well as calligraphy that the characters seem to draw in the air.
He's also assembled a cast that, aptly, rules. Tran is a Children's Theatre Company veteran (The Sneetches, The Abominables, How the Grinch Stole Christmas) who commands attention in her starring role, while Fumie's sympathetic as an airborne Jiminy Cricket. (Or, as our president might call her, "the FAILING nightingale!") Nordquist and Soukup-Raymo trade their royal robes for audience-favorite supporting roles as a pair of gossipy pandas.
Although The Princess' Nightingale has a happy ending for Hexiao (whoops, spoiler alert), the real comeback story here is SteppingStone itself, which is emerging from a financial crisis that gripped the organization when artistic director Mark Ferraro-Hauck took over in 2016. Things are looking up again for the St. Paul institution, with Princess' Nightingale the latest in a series of compelling shows — and another promising season ahead. Now, that's something to tweet about.