Roundhouse Theatre, La Boite
September 9, 2016

The theatre is swathed in mist. Mirrors and empty frames hang from the ceiling and lights twinkle through gnarled bare branches. A red stain – a pool of blood – glistens in the centre of the stage like an open wound. When the actors take the stage, from four different compass points, the mirrors they hold beam penetrating shafts of light through the mist.

Snow White, a reimagining of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale by director Lindy Hume, composer Zulya Kamalova and librettist Suzie Miller, is a dark, edgy piece of musical theatre that focuses on the relationship between the Queen and her – in this case biological – daughter Snow White. Dripping with sex and blood, the drama centres around the Queen’s realisation, first horrified then despairing, that her 15-year-old daughter has become exactly the person she was at the same age.

Snow WhiteStephanie Picket as Snow White. Photo © Dylan Evans

Contemporary vocalist and songwriter Stephanie Pickett makes for a volatile Snow White, switching smoothly between innocent schoolgirl, screaming teenager and would-be seductress. She watches, fascinated, as her mother (mezzo-soprano and cooking show host Silvia Colloca) dances an erotic tango with the Mirror (a camp, knowing villain sung with obvious relish by tenor Kanen Breen) and she throws herself into the role of curious, wide-eyed adolescent as the predatory Mirror smears her face with lipstick and encourages her to dress up in her mother’s clothing.

Silvia Colloca as the Queen and Michael Tuahine as the Huntsman, photo © Dylan Evans

Michael Tuahine is a rugged, chiselled Huntsman, who has both the Mirror and the Queen salivating, but his lines are delivered rather woodenly and his wrestling (emotionally and literally) with the Queen’s amorous advances doesn’t quite ring true. His backstory – that his daughter died so he became a cold, emotionless assassin – feels perfunctory. It isn’t until his solo in the second act that Tuahine’s power as an actor and singer really shine through.

The Queen, however, is the character for whom we feel the most sympathy, as she rails against the viperish daughter who will inevitably replace her. Hers is also the only character that really develops through the piece, and Colloca – who embraces both the evil and sorrow of her part with gusto – has a fine, rich voice that pairs well with Breen’s. But making the Queen more three dimensional also stretches the credibility of her repeated murder attempts, creating a tension between the elements of the fairy tale and the contemporary adaption that is never completely resolved.

Miller’s libretto feels, at times, overly explanatory – lines often made obvious or redundant by the drama on stage – and the dramatic pacing could be more streamlined. The Huntsman’s song in the second act – despite a wonderful performance by Tuahine – stops the action dead, happening so long after the character’s role in the story has finished. Much is made of Snow White wresting the axe from the Huntsman at the end of act one, but it turns out to be a Chekov’s gun that’s never fired. For all the bloody imagery there is not all that much actual violence. (Plenty of sex, though.)

Kanen Breen as the Mirror, photo © Dylan Evans

The well-crafted set, costumes and lighting turn the theatre-in-the-round into a vividly menacing forest scene and the four-piece band – an unusual combination of keyboard, percussion, cello and trumpet/trombone – conveys the sense of a much larger ensemble, bringing to life Kamalova’s tango-rock-cabaret score from a wooded alcove in the stage.

Above all, though, Snow White is entertaining. The duets between Colloca and Pickett in the final scene are fantastic and Breen, as evil puppetmaster and narrator, slides through the fourth wall at will – chatting with audience members and delivering witty barbs – bringing a comic physicality to the role. Not to mention his singing, which is perhaps the highlight of the show. There are plenty of laughs – references to Colloca’s cooking career sneak in and seven stuffed woodland animals stand in for the dwarfs cut from the story – and the finale is far more nuanced and affecting than the slapstick-horrific fairy tale ending in which the Queen is forced to dance to her death in a pair of red-hot iron shoes.

Opera Queensland and La Boite Theatre Company present Snow White at the Brisbane Festival. It plays the Roundhouse Theatre, La Boite until September 24


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