Among Richmond's many talented playwrights and composers — and yes, there are several — perhaps no one has seen more of their work produced than Paul Deiss. For more than 20 years, this stalwart theater artist has been developing original children's musicals, primarily for Swift Creek Mill Theatre in Colonial Heights. Seven years ago, Virginia Repertory Theatre commissioned Deiss to adapt Mozart's classic comic opera, "The Magic Flute," now running in a musically rich and visually captivating revival on the company's Willow Lawn stage. It was an investment that pays ample dividends in 70 minutes of fun that's as engaging for adults as it is for kids.
Though the fabled plot remains largely intact, none of Mozart's music is in this adaptation. Instead, Deiss supplies plenty of catchy and clever songs of his own, from the Motown-influenced "Bad Man" to the calypso-esque "Long Live Zarastro." Like many musical classics, these are instantly memorable tunes; I overheard at least a half-dozen people humming "Zarastro" as I walked out of the theater.
Director Susan Sanford has enhanced this material by casting some of Richmond's most popular comic actors who also happen to be knockout singers. Debra Wagoner commands the stage as the queen of the Night, who kicks the plot into gear by recruiting bumbling hero Tamino (Josh Marin) to save her daughter Pamina (Jackie Reynolds) from the purportedly evil Zarastro (Russell Rowland). Wagoner elicits copious amounts of laughter with a simple gesture one minute then launches into rafter-shaking vocals the next.
Matt Shofner, who has dual roles as one of the Queen's attendants and as Zarastro's villainous assistant, Monostatos, matches Wagoner in both comic chops and vocal muscle. The actresses playing the Queen's other attendants, Liz Blake White and Nicole Oberleitner, are both lovely of voice and visage and get in a few good jokes of their own. As the damsel-in-distress and her savior, Reynolds and Marin make a sweet pair with a fairy-tale level of romantic chemistry. Rowland has the gravitas to be a commanding king but also prompts laughs with his playful dancing. Matt Beyer rounds out the cast as Papageno, the charming but self-interested sidekick to Tamino, who reluctantly agrees to accompany the hero to Zarastro's Temple to save Pamina.
The story's conflicts are milked for comedy instead of tension, making the show very kid-friendly, but the actors bring a contemporary sass to the material that keeps the parents engaged. While the theological basis for producing the show as part of the Acts of Faith Festival seems vague, the central plot twist is a reminder to both children and adults that initial impressions are sometimes misleading. The final trials that Tamino and Pamina must overcome — when the magic flute actually comes into play — almost seem like an afterthought, but the pageantry of the proceedings never wanes. Costume designer Sue Griffin provides sumptuous frocks, the Queen's dress being a particular standout, and Lynne M. Hartman's dramatic lighting design enhances many scenes.
"The Magic Flute" is just one more testament to the benefits of buying locally. It's the perfect warm-hearted respite from the cold winds of winter. S
"The Magic Flute" runs through Feb. 10 at Virginia Repertory's Children's Theatre of Virginia at Willow Lawn. Call 282-2620 or go to va-rep.org for tickets and information.