Don’t Be Sheepish! Go See The Princess & the Handmaiden

l-r: jonathan tan, regan thiel
photo: daniel alexander
The Princess & the Handmaiden, written and composed by Leslie Arden playing until December 30th at Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People, is exactly the story that I have been waiting for Disney to create for the past fifteen years. It is a beautiful tale of friendship, with rich, complex characters and music, two strong female protagonists and all the magic and delight that make fairytales so everlasting.
Leslie Arden is a brilliant storyteller, infusing the Brothers Grimm The Goose Girl with a fresh perspective on themes of envy, privilege and destiny with heaps of laughter, wit and gorgeous music. The story centers around a Princess and her Handmaiden, two girls who have grown up together, yet in time, the disparate worlds they inhabit drive a wedge of jealousy and resentment between them. The Handmaiden is certain that her life would be perfect were she the pampered and affluent Princess, while the Princess feels that she would rather shirk her royal responsibilities and live a common life. When a distant king becomes ill and the Princess is entrusted with delivering a curing elixir to him, the Handmaiden seizes her opportunity to betray her friend’s trust and to switch places with her in hopes of obtaining the far-away Prince’s hand in marriage. With a slew of quirky ensemble characters, and delightful songs with the cleverest of lyrics, The Princess & the Handmaiden is a Canadian gem that will appeal with equal gusto to both the young and the young at heart.
It is Sharron Matthews’ job to welcome you as the Narrator, and if her beaming enchantment does not instantly fill your heart with joy, you must be devoid of spirit. It was also so enjoyable to see Matthews singing so beautifully in the upper register of her voice, and then, with all her comedic prowess, playing the grumbly old King. George Masswohl is perfectly playful as the King’s Captain, a rabbit and a Scottish sheep eliciting giggles from the children everywhere he goes. Andrew Stelmack has created the most endearing little sheep. With his entirely vacant expression, he spent the play in a state of utter bewilderment which completely thrilled the children, for whom the sheep were definitely the hit of the show. Susan Henley also shone particularly bright in the sheep scenes, and also created the beautiful bar maid, Molly, who is all heart. Jonathan Tan gives a lovely performance as Conrad, the reclusive shepherd of the motley sheep crew. He has a gorgeous voice and Arden’s beautiful ballads suit him with absolute perfection. Tracy Michailidis and Regan Thiel, as the Handmaiden and the Princess respectively, create a lovely friendship for these two young woman, which is obviously filled with contradictory emotions and experiences that are both warm and infuriating to recall. It is sometimes difficult for actors who are playing sneaky and mischievous characters to resist an urge towards overacting, but Michailidis excels at insuring that whether her Handmaiden is overcome with resentment, fraught with stress, embroiled in tricks or overcome with humility, she is always rooted in such genuine feelings, that it is hard to dislike her, even while she’s reeking havoc for the Princess. Regal Thiel is just as lovely as the Princess, who radiates goodness with gentle grace in even her smallest movements. Her gorgeous soprano voice soars particularly vividly throughout the theatre as well.
I liked David Boechler’s dark woodland set and the children were delighted by the far-away glitter fireworks. Allen MacInnis’ direction captured the fairytale genre nicely and clearly established a number of different locations. I thought that Jane Johanson’s choreography left something to be desired, but, at the same time, I felt that this story was not in need of some extravagant production number. I did find myself wishing that the Princess and the Handmaiden had personal names, perhaps only because this is a bias that I have; however, it seemed that it could have further personalized these characters and their relationships with one another, rather than the Princess calling Conrad by his name, and him having to refer to her by her title or simply as “the girl.” It also seemed oddly formal for the two girls, friends from birth, to call each other “Princess” and “Handmaiden.” Lastly, without giving too much away, I strongly salute Leslie Arden for her choice to end this fairytale in such an empowering and unconventional way. There is so much to cheer about in The Princess & the Handmaiden, so much that will touch your heart and just as much to make you want to laugh or sing along. Grant yourself a privilege, and check out this show, and if there are special young people in your life, give them the gift of Canadian musical theatre at its best this holiday season!
The Princess & the Handmaiden plays until December 30th, 2009 at Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People (65 Front Street East, Toronto). It is recommended for ages 5 and up. For tickets and more information please call 416.862.2222 or visit http://www.lktyp.ca/.

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