Sleeping Beauty Wakes: A Critique

by Roz Foster

Sleeping Beauty Wakes at the Mandell Weiss Theatre (La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, California) seemed, on the surface, to be a delightfully modernized version of the original French conte or fairytale (La Belle au Bois Dormant by Charles Perrault, 1697, from Les Contes de ma mère l’Oye, literally: The Fairytales of My Mother the Goose). Nine hundred years after Rose pricks her finger on a cursed spindle and falls into a slumber from which she cannot awaken, she is brought to a sleep clinic in the present. The night the unconscious fairytale princess is admitted, other patients, who seek cures for angst-driven sleep disorders like insomnia and night terrors, sleep deeply having entered Sleeping Beauty’s dream-kingdom. For the girl, this fairytale realm has become an endless nightmare from which she cannot awaken.

On the surface, the tale seems an edgy, postmodern, feminist struggle between father and daughter, king and princess, patriarchy and woman, for control over the girl’s life.  Her father tells her background tale: prince after prince have kissed and failed to wake her. The king, thusly, entreated the fairies to enchant him so that he might live, caring for his daughter, until she woke.

Nine centuries later, an awkward orderly with narcolepsy falls into Sleeping Beauty’s dream-mare. The ensuing duet and dance, which spans the audience-imagined moat separating the envisioned castle where she’s trapped and the shore where the orderly stands, is the highlight of the show. And not just because Bryce Ryness, as the convincingly hunched and pitiable orderly, discards his shirt to reveal a tall and tanned modern prince with washboard abs. The swim is elegantly choreographed to complement the dreamy music and lyrics of “Drifting.”  The song and dance so simply suggest the scene in the minds of the audience using but one sleep clinic bed on wheels, two performers and a whole lot of whirly watery lighting.

Now Rose is newly invigorated to fight for her right to awaken into the real world and sings “Good For Me,” an anthem of revolution for all of the Daddy’s little girls out there who are dying to break free of the patriarchal curse of their father’s protective moats. After pricking her finger yet again, this time on the chrome spindle of a dreamt spinning wheel, Rose wakes to find the awkward, narcoleptic orderly hovering over her. They kiss.

Technically, it’s not the orderly’s kiss that wakes her. And yet it is. The songs of their love that follow compound the message that it is the prince that makes Rose’s life worth waking to. These numbers serve to convince the king, the true authority in this old-fashioned tale, that their love is legitimate. The lovers labor to gain his blessing. Rose’s apparent struggle for freedom from patriarchy collapses back on itself when Sleeping Beauty, refusing to rise for the lips of so many princes for so many years, wakes only when she finds the right prince. This “modern” Sleeping Beauty wakes 100 years too late to be innovative, since the notion of choosing love over class hasn’t been edgy since around the turn of the century.

The modernization of this musical fairytale lies only in its setting, its time, and its praiseworthy placement of a young woman in the principal role. Rachel Sheinkin, book writer, Brendan Milburn, composer, and Valerie Vigoda, lyricist write the role of Rose to carry the show, and the petite Aspen Vincent does so vibrantly with a powerful voice and a charming stage presence. She is the show’s vanguard and pinnacle, even as she spins this tale of patriarchal submission, billed as a revolution for femininity. The show disappoints in being the same tale it was 900 years ago: the princess is saved by the strapping, white (well, bronze), Mr. Right, a prince in disguise. As a result, Sleeping Beauty Wakes unwittingly works to prolong the nightmare in which a woman must wait for Prince Charming before her life may begin.

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