If you can see only one fanciful children's drama this year featuring a winged, mythological beastie known as a hippogriff, then let it be...
Ha. Naturally, you thought I was about to say "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," featuring Hagrid's Buckbeak, the delightful part-horse, part-bird that's fond of snacking on furry forest creatures. But hold on, Seattle Children's Theatre has a potential rival for your hippogriff affections - a wonderful prop in its dazzling new production, "The Magic City" - that carries the villainous Pretenderette in her quest to conquer the Land of Precarious, a dreamworld inspired by a lonely boy's imagination.
"The Magic City" is based on a novel by British writer E. (Edith) Nesbit, a Victorian-era, socialist intellectual often credited with modernizing children's literature (her best-known work is, most likely, "The Railway Children") by creating young protagonists whose adventures help them overcome personal obstacles. Adapted by playwright Joe Sutton (whose "Voir Dire," which premiered at Seattle Rep, was nominated for a Pulitzer) with emotional expansiveness and a tone of endless possibility, SCT's take on Nesbit's fable offers - along with the hippogriff - a marvelous steam-breathing dragon, a camel with room for three on its back, and a small, beautiful handheld toy that offers audiences a final surprise. (Keep your eyes on it at the end.)
Set in the late 19th century, "The Magic City" concerns 10-year-old Philip (Jason Collins, a SCT veteran previously seen in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe") and his older sister, Helen (Kimber Lee, who starred in the company's "Go, Dog, Go!" and "Charlotte's Web"). Orphaned at a young age, the two have had only each other as boon companions, but at the beginning of our story Helen is newly married and departing for her honeymoon. Unhappy Philip doesn't understand why she must leave him even for a while, and his misery is compounded by moving into the house of Helen's husband, Peter (Andrew C. McMasters). Once Helen is gone, Philip spurns friendly overtures from Peter's daughter, Lucy (Carol Roscoe, very good in SCT's recent one-woman show, "Shape of a Girl"), and feels the sting of Lucy's nurse (Anne Allgood, fresh from several Broadway productions), who resents his presence.
Confined to his room, Peter slips into Lucy's play area, where he opens an enormous cabinet to find shelves upon shelves of toys and collectibles. Encouraged by well-meaning Lucy to enjoy himself while Nurse is out, Peter builds a glittering, magic city, but is soon caught and treated horribly. Escaping into sleep, Peter finds himself and Lucy caught inside Precarious, the walled kingdom Peter just created. There, Peter is pressed into fulfilling a long-held prophecy that a hero will arrive to save Precarious from the evil Pretenderette (Allgood) - essentially Nurse in more colorful garb - and also perform a series of selfless tasks.
In short order, Peter slays the dragon in a protracted, loud and tense scene that demonstrates actor Collins' abilities in falling, rolling and tumbling about. (Collins has several strenuous fight scenes in the play. In a post-show conversation on opening night, he told me he's already pretty banged up; he also came close, at one point, to landing at my front-row feet.) Peter also unravels a mysterious rug (more of a puzzle than a labor) and succeeds at transporting a tribe of Island Dwellers - whose curse is living within a sand castle that washes away each day - to a more permanent home. In each instance, Peter realizes he can't succeed without help, especially Lucy's, and that he must give of himself, sometimes painfully, in order to join a world larger than the shelter he has known with Helen.
Wonders never cease in "The Magic City." Before the end, Peter and Lucy will have drawn CaesarMcManus himself from a magic book in order to raise an army against the Pretenderette, and Peter will learn, upon awakening, that the qualities of mercy and forgiveness can change life for the better. Meanwhile, director Linda Hartzell (also SCT's artistic director) and her skillful crew, typical of the theater, keep knocking one out with a scene-after-scene succession of lavish sets, exotic costumes, projected imagery and atmospheric lighting.
The cast is rounded out by several actors playing multiple parts, including young, Yale-bound Shorecrest High graduate Brian Earp, Allen Galli ("The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"), Reginald Andre Jackson ("Holes"), Peter A. Jacobs ("The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle"), Charles Leggett ("Johnny Tremain") and Annette Toutonghi ("The Gingerbread Man"). All prove essential in steering "The Magic City" through several phases in its changeable fable, from the "Alice in Wonderland" feel of Precarious to the ethereal delicacy of the Island Dwellers chapter, in which Helen steps into Peter's dream and encourages him to make a painful sacrifice.
Young kids might find the story a little complicated but the production itself engrossing. Certainly there was no audible restlessness in the crowd on opening night - understandable for such a breathtaking production.
The Magic City by Seattle Children's Theatre runs through Nov. 6 on Fridays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 5:30 p.m. Call the box office about weekday matinees for schools: 441-3322. Tickets range from $14 to $28