The Snow Queen, the Arden Theatre’s new children’s production (through Jan. 26), is not Frozen 2. Nor is it Frozen.
The Hans Christian Andersen-inspired, Scandinavia-set play written by prolific British playwright Charles Way features powerful female characters, magical royalty, haunting sounds, fabulous design … and lots of snow. Other than that, it’s not at all like the Disney movies.
What it is, is what the Arden does best: imaginative, physical, goosebump- to giggle-inducing live, meaningful storytelling, with a supporting cast of five seamlessly portraying a head-spinning average of five roles apiece. The three leads are no slackers, either.
Whit MacLaughlin directs. At some point in the run of the production, one audience member will become the 1 millionth to attend a children’s production at the Old City theater.
Here’s the story. In a stark, industrial town, four young friends in winter — they seem to be in their early teens — vacillate between childhood pastimes and adult feelings and responsibilities. Among them is Gerda (the sparkling Eunice Akinola), a motherless girl with a strict father (beloved Arden regular Alex Bechtel) who is also the children’s strict schoolteacher.
There’s also Cei (forthright Daniel Ison), Gerda’s next-door neighbor and best friend from childhood. As a diffident Gerda struggles to follow her father’s rules, dauntless Cei pulls her away from structure and toward fun.
Apart and above these earthly goings-on, the elegant and vain Snow Queen (Katherine Fried), has had her minions (trolls, played by the cast), build a perfect mirror and then smash it when it becomes flawed. The glass shards possess dark magic. When Cei gets one in his eye, he, too, becomes vain and hard-hearted.
Out sledding, Cei meets the Snow Queen. She convinces him to join her in her sleigh, puts him under a spell, and they fly through the sky to her icy residence, where the queen puts a compliant Cei to work repairing the mirror.
Back home, Gerda refuses to believe Cei has died, and she sets out to find him. She travels to colorful, fantastical lands where it’s spring, summer, and fall, all the while turning enemies into friends — and revealing she’s much stronger than she thought.
In fall, a reindeer (not named Sven, also played by Bechtel), leads Gerda to winter, the queen, and Cei, where a bloodcurdling struggle leads to a hotly spectacular, if fairy tale-predictable, ending.
It’s hard to pinpoint what’s best about the play, but it begins with sound as some eerie, ethereal, Enya-like vocals sung by Fried place the audience in an unfamiliar otherworld. Even her fabulous icicle gown sounds frozen.
On the flip side, opening and closing narrator Kala Moses Baxter intones a grounding, watch-and-you’ll-see realness.
The Snow Queen is not a musical but does pull out all the stops for kids, including some sung lines and some dancing. There’s amazing live accordion (Bechtel), guitar (Ison), violin (Mary Fishburne, which she plucks while descending below and ascending to the stage) — all played in the round.
The design is spare, yet impressive. Seasons come and go with surprises falling from above and costumes that threaten to steal the scene.
Humor abounds. Ask a 7-year-old what was funniest, and he or she might say the dance-off between Gerda and the Robber Woman (Moses Baxter again, and she also plays other roles). It first appears like it’s going to be slow and modern (boring) and ends up with orange justice and a victory dab (awesome).
Jo Vito Ramirez steals the spring season as a flowery daffodil named Narcissus. Fishburne is hilariously Regina George-ish as a princess in summer. Jenna Kuerzi out-gypsies Janice Joplin as fall’s Robber Girl. And Moses Baxter, well, when she’s not onstage, you want her to be.
Hail to the queen
Still, the show’s star can’t be anyone but the title character. Fried glides in and out and along the theater’s perimeter, the spikes of her translucent crown unwavering, her magical voice and breaths devastating and bewitching.
Her presence is so beautiful that even after she has banished the trolls and hurt and kidnapped Cei, the queen seems — according to some younger audience members, polled during a recent intermission — like the heroine, not the villain.
But villain she is, a white-robed Maleficent until the very last moment, when the shrieks she unleashes from her throat nearly eject audience members from seats — and definitely cause some little hands to go to little ears — before she exits in truly magical fashion.
Of everyone in the play, the queen will, inexorably, be the most remembered.
The Snow Queen
Through Jan. 26 at Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St.
Information: 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org