I liked everything about the idea of Howl's Moving Castle, A New Musical, which runs at Center Theatre through December 30. I liked three things in particular.
Thing 1: Sara Porkalob is the star. She's a quadruple threat who can carry a show on her own, but in this production she has the help of Michael Feldman, Randall Scott Carpenter, Kate Jaeger, and Opal Peachey. How could anything go wrong?
Thing 2: Hayao Miyazaki transformed Diana Wynne Jones's 1986 novel into a beloved and mesmerizing anime with a celebrated soundtrack, and there's no reason why director/adapter/Book-It co-founder Myra Platt and composer/lyricist/actor/musician Justin Huertas couldn't turn the same source material into a magical musical. Huertas's humor and Platt's experience boded well, and there seemed to be plenty of opportunity to buck the conventions of generic musical theater and run with something a little wilder.
Thing 3: I liked the poster.
But, though the performances were generally fantastic, this production couldn't overcome the big problem presented by the story of Howl's Moving Castle.
Though Platt admirably amplifies Sophie's feminist drive to achieve her goal of homeownership despite her station as eldest sister, and though Porkalob adds some extra (and much needed) chutzpa and humor to the role, the plot is baggy and convoluted. Plus the rules of the world are unclear, which makes it difficult to care about any of the characters. You don't truly know how much danger anyone is in at any given moment.
In the film, Miyazaki had to add a war subplot to increase narrative tension and depth, and even then it's still kind of boring. The only thing that really saves it is Miyazaki's imaginative animations (e.g. the pillowy food, the pastel steampunk aesthetic) and the deep weirdness of the characters.
Without all that stuff, Platt is left to render a fantasy world on a low budget, tangle and untangle a handful of flat romantic relationships, and maintain interest in a ho-hum story of a powerful witch who curses a young woman for potentially spoiling her complex plan to install herself as queen.
Some of Huertas's 23 new songs liven up the action, but for the most part the writing is workaday and the melodies are standard. His talent for choruses and his humor shine in charming numbers like "Lettie Loves Me" (sung with earnest enthusiasm by Randall Scott Carpenter) and "Cake" (an ensemble piece elevated by Rachel Guyer-Mafune's boundless energy), but awkward phrasing dominates the verses.
For example, at one point Sophie sings, "Maybe I can choose better, and not worse," as if the latter clause needed saying for any reason other than to force a rhyme. Also: Huertas leans on anachronistic jokes and meta-theatricality to spice up the lyrics, and that works well for the first two hours. It starts to get old in the third. To be fair, the audience laughed more often than I did, and I saw people nodding their heads to the songs.
(Yes, it was 2.5 hours long. But it felt like three.)
And maybe it didn't help that microphone issues plagued the opening night performance I attended. The mic volume randomly raised or lowered on some of the performers, and there were lots of scraping and popping noises. For their part, the actors weren't too thrown off by the technical difficulties.
ALL THAT SAID: Platt does retain a lot of the gender and age fluidity that makes Jones's novel interesting to think about for more than 15 minutes, and that combined with her decision to scrap Sophie's happily-ever-after ending ingeniously (if indirectly) made room for characters and designers to make choices they wouldn't have been able to make.
Costume designer Margaret Toomey dressed up the young and rebellious wizard, Howl, like the adopted son of David Bowie and George Michael. At one point he wears silver spray-painted jeans, a crushed red-velvet prince's coat, a pink emo-hair wig, and dazzling dangly earrings. (Howl's fabulous androgyny quietly asserts itself throughout Miyazaki's film, too.)
And the performers do not disappoint. Porkalob is exciting to watch even when she's just sitting uncomfortably in a chair. John Coons turns a pretty good number ("That Boy Is Going Bad") into a great comedic number through the pure power of his pipes and his nuance as a character singer. Kate Jaeger's range, the richness of her voice, and her powerful stage presence stood out among the ensemble, which is impressive considering the quality of the talent surrounding her.
As is so often the case in Seattle, the performances weren't the problem. After another couple passes at the book and a lot more money for scenery (alas), this dreamy dream musical could become a mighty touring production.