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Frozen steampunk fairy tale celebrates love

It’s a brave move, opening both a new venue and a new musical at the same time, but the Collaborative Theatre Project in Medford is clearly the gutsy new kid in town. The nonprofit theater arts company opens this holiday season with Rick Lombardo’s and Kirsten Brandt’s steampunk, musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” It’s the story that helped inspire Disney’s hit movie, “Frozen,” but there’s little similarity to the animated film. Like other classic Christian-Andersen stories, such as “The Little Mermaid” or “The Red Shoes,” it’s a good deal darker, more mysterious and deeply poignant.

Directed by Susan Aversa-Orrego, “The Snow Queen” tells the story of best friends, Gerda (Grace Peets) and Kai (Reese Rush), a pair of children who are separated when Kai gets a shard in his eye from the mirror of disillusionment. Suddenly unable to see the beauty and joy in the world, he turns on his friend and falls under the spell of the alluring but cold-hearted Snow Queen.

Gerda, armed with nothing but love and bravery, sets off to rescue her friend. Along the way, she encounters many colorful characters and has the adventure of a lifetime. The cast is loaded with good actors with strong voices. Peets is sweetly adorable and perfectly cast as the pure and courageous Gerda, with a singing voice that reflects her character’s big heart. Rush is intense as the tortured Kai.

Rebecca Campbell’s Snow Queen is detached and glittering, with a powerful, suitably crystalline voice. The entire ensemble is talented and fun to watch as they move from one role to another, playing flowers, birds, trolls and thieves. Many of the ensemble members have a chance to shine on their own, including Alex Boyles as the old crow, Pam Ward as the kindly grandmother, Hayley Forsyth as a spoiled robber girl, and Sarah Gore as a spunky princess.

There’s a lot going on in the story, which moves quickly. Some of the songs feel a bit long, but with the added joy of seeing music performed by a live band, it almost doesn’t matter. The compact band, directed by Karl Iverson, performs the score as well as ethereal sound effects. Iverson plays on keys, Ian Harland is on keys and vibraphone, Steve Sutfin is on percussion, Bruce McKern on bass, and Chun-Han Chou plays violin.

The minimalist set, designed by Adam Klein, is rough-edged and intriguing. It puts the band center stage, partially obscured by steampunk factory cogs and gears that morph into the snowflakes of the Snow Queen’s icy palace. The many smart, playful costumes are well-constructed, and it’s no surprise that it took a team of four, led by SOU costume design grad Kayla Bush, to put them together.

The theater itself, carved out of a former basketball court, is intimate with plenty of comfortable seating. Located in Medford Center, across the courtyard from the Tinseltown movie theater, the CTP’s new home is easy to miss when walking by, but well worth finding for those who enjoy live theater.

While there are a few scenes that could benefit by tuning choreography and timing, such as the moment when Gerta falls into a river, this production is remarkably tight and professionally staged for the early effort of an entirely new company. CTP has an ambitious 2017 season planned, and the strength of their debut production portends a bright future.

Performances of “The Snow Queen” will continue at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays, Dec. 8-10 and 15-17, Wednesday through Friday, Dec. 21-23, and Wednesday through Saturday, Dec. 28-31. Matinees are at 1:30 p.m. Sundays, Dec. 11 and 18. Tickets and prices are available online at ctporegon.org.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at decker4@gmail.com.