Review: ‘The Freshest Snow Whyte’ at Imagination Stage

Far off the radar of most grownup theatergoers, the writer/director Psalmayene 24 has been creating an extraordinary body of work for children. I’ve been an admirer of the trenchant work he has directed for mature audiences—the plays Not Enuf Lifetimes and The Shipment knocked me out. But until The Freshest Snow Whyte—his fourth creation for Imagination Stage—I had not tuned in to the delightful and insightful shows Psalmayene 24 makes up for kids.

Better make that: kids of all ages.

K Rock (Taylor Robinson) and Snow Whyte (Katy Carkuff). Photo by Margot Schulman.

And before saying what a shimmering fine show this is, better say up front: The Freshest Snow Whyte delivers a message about equality so beautiful and important, it’s not only family-friendly; it’s what the whole world needs now.

The Freshest Snow Whyte is a hip hop musical. Hip hop lite, you might say, upbeat like pop with zero menace. The word freshest in the title and script means coolest, the best. In the spirit of that superlative, the tightest book and slickest lyrics are by Psalmayene 24 and the dopest hip hop score is composed and performed by Musical Director Nick “tha 1da” Hernandez.

Psalmayene 24 imagines the fairy tale character Snow White in a futuristic comic strip world. Scenic Designer Richard Ouellette goes crazy askew; eccentric triangles outlined in neon form the upstage wall and an overhead projection screen, and more irregular triangles make up the floor. It’s like Buckminster Fuller was on something. Strangely the disorientation becomes the perfect locale for Psalmayene 24’s charming tale.

The plot borrows just a smidgen from the Brothers Grimm. It’s the year 3000 and Snow Whyte has become a universe-renowned graffiti artist, the freshest, in fact. That’s the verdict of Mira, who adjudicates the competition—from behind a scrim as if inside a mirror—and declares who’s the freshest of them all. We get to see Snow Whyte’s award-winning work on the big screen above the stage (Projections Designer Tewodross “Teo” Melchishua Williams makes the art on her behalf), and it is indeed marvelous to behold. Kind of like Kandinsky was on something.

Snow Whyte has no wicked stepmother, no wicked stepsisters, but she does have a wickedly entertaining uncle, Kanye East. Kanye’s got a huge heart. He took Snow Whyte in when she was little and raised her to be the self-possessed young woman she has become. But he also has a huge ego. He is himself a graffiti artist, and he flies into a fit of pique when his niece gets Mira’s nod as freshest.

Kanye has a robot named 3Pac, who regularly needs a reboot. Kanye enlists the malfunctioning 3Pac as his accomplice in a scheme to settle the score with Snow Whyte and prove he has more talent. Thus is set in motion an interplanetary chase-and-intrigue caper invested in win-or-lose competitiveness and involving some very silly walks.

Upon learning that her uncle is up to no good, Snow Whyte goes into exile on the planet Palladium, where she though an alien is given sanctuary (imagine that!). Her host family consists of two twin zanies, Pop Lock and K Rock—the seven dwarfs, downsized—whose floppy walks make them seem rubberized. When they go off to work, they let her stay in their home but make her promise not to let anyone in the door. Meanwhile  Kanye has tracked her down (he and 3Pac travel by nifty hover-limo), and he tries comical disguises to inveigle himself inside.

The night I saw the show, the kids in the audience were loving it. The live-wire actors busted the rhymes and bounced to the beats like all get out. And they could have not had better confederates than Choreographer Tony Thomas II and Costume Designer Jeanette Christensen. The musical accompaniment is prerecorded (Sound Designer Thomas Sowers keeps it real), but the rapping and singing could not be more alive. Together they contrived a crew of comic strip characters who were nonstop outlandish and enchanting.

The artistry of Lighting Designer Dylan Uremovich impressed the young audience so much that one particular effect stopped the show in audible awe. It was when  Snow Whyte said of the weather “It’s sparkling.” And the darkened auditorium lit up with glittering starbursts.

The piece is perfectly paced for young attention spans, with ample interludes of audience participation. The cast would start up a call and response to make a plot point happen, for instance, and the kids would chime in with glee. And there was a bit when the zanies are away and Snow Whyte discovers something she can’t identify. It’s a broom, the kids yelled out. When Snow Whyte asked for someone to show her how to use it, one tot did so adorably.

The story wraps up in a pointed metaphor, which I disclose to underscore what an impressively principled script Psalmayene 24 has written. The twin zanies’ employment, it turns out, is in a cosmic mixing and measuring operation. It’s the place from which each individual who is born gets assigned a unique and individualized array of talent. Some individuals may excel at one thing; some may excel at another, and so on. But each individual gets the same total amount. Everyone’s assortment is different but no one’s aggregate is better. Everyone is equal.

The “Freshest” Team in the Galaxy save the day and learn an important lesson! L-R: Taylor Robinson, Calvin McCullough, Katy Carkuff, Frank Britton, and Louis E. Davis. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Speaking of arrays of talent, the actors deserve a special shout-out. Because I had seen several of them before in serious and substantive dramatic roles, I was blown away to see what they can do when they cut loose and go wacky. Frank Britton as 3Pac, Katy Carkuff as Snow Whyte, Louis E. Davis as Pop Lock, Jonathan Feuer as Mira, Calvin McCullough as Kanye East, and Taylor Robinson as K Rock—their polished physicality and mischievous free spirits kept me giggling to myself at stuff the kids could not possibly appreciate, because they could not know what awesome acting talent was taking us along on this buskers’ holiday of hilarity.

So bring the kids, without question (The Freshest Snow Whyte is a kick for five and up). But even with no young ones along, The Freshest Snow Whyte is an inspired mix of terrific fun and stirring truth.

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission.

The Freshest Snow Whyte plays through March 18, 2017, at Imagination Stage – 4908 Auburn Avenue, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the Box Office at (301) 280-1660, or purchase them online.

‘P.Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical’ at Imagination Stage by Grace Kim

‘Cinderella: The Remix’ at Imagination Stage by Julia L. Exline.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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