It is the age-old story of good versus evil, intertwined with fairy tale elements such as kings and queens, talking animals and an evil witch's spell. And when C.S. Lewis wrote his Chronicles of Narnia series of classic fantasy novels, his inspiration included many parallels to Christianity — the death and resurrection of Aslan the lion, for example.
So when the folks at Live Oak Theatre decided to present a musical adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, what better time to have opening day than on Good Friday?
"(The show) is an allegory," said director Vince Vanni. "Aslan is a Christ-like figure. So that's why we decided to open on Good Friday."
The show will continue with a matinee and evening show on Saturday, as well as shows April 25 through 27 at Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
"It is exciting," admits Randi Olsen, artistic director for Live Oak Theatre, who is the show's co-musical director with Jessica Lucas. "The story itself is amazing — the characters that came to life on the pages I devoured as a little girl, taking collectively what was in my imagination — along with the whole production team. ...We're recreating a world we saw in the imaginations of our childhoods."
The story takes place during World War II, when the Pevensie children — Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy — are sent to live with the Professor. It is the youngest, Lucy, who enters an old wardrobe and discovers the land of Narnia, meeting the faun Mr. Tumnus, who tells her the story of the White Witch, Jadis, who has an evil spell over the land where it is "always winter but never Christmas."
Lead roles have been double and triple cast, a decision Vanni and Olsen believed was best, to allow more of the actors the chance to perform.
"Double-casting can be stressful, but I never would have gotten the chance of being Aslan otherwise," admits Eric Kessel of Brooksville, who stars as Aslan, his first lead role.
Kessel decided to get involved with Live Oak after his 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth (who stars in her first lead role as Lucy), performed in company's production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Kessel shares the role of Aslan with Tim Van Bruggen of New Port Richey. Van Bruggen first came to the area in 2005, teaching the arts to inner city youth in Tampa.
"I've directed (the show) twice, but this is my first time performing in it," Van Bruggen said.
The role of Jadis is also double cast, between Ariel Santerelli of Brooksville and Lisa Richards of Tampa.
While Richards has spent many years backstage, it was only recently that she decided to try acting. She nabbed the role of Esther in a touring production of Judah Ben Hur with Youth With a Mission of Tampa earlier this year, and she says her current role as Jadis couldn't be more different.
"I loved Esther as a person," Richards said. "But the Witch is pure evil. ... She is the female version of Satan, seducing with her candy-coated arsenic."
As with many performers in the show, Richards' family joins her in the cast — husband Kevan plays the wolf, and their 8-year-old son, Zeke, plays Edmund. Their three other children, Lenia, Adelle and Titus play various creatures.
But catching Elizabeth Richards' performance as Jadis and Kevan's dead-on portrayal of the Wolf can only be seen this weekend because Kevan's "day job" as a smoke jumper is taking him to Iowa early on Easter Sunday.
Santerelli, 19, will take over as Jadis the following weekend. Jadis is Santerelli's first big role. While she has experience performing vocally, as well as on piano and with dance, she only recently decided to try musical theater.
The show includes 20 songs, a cast of 20 adults and teens, 40 children and more than 20 choir members. Performers range in ages from 6 to almost 80. Joining in the production will be Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church's choir, led by Stephanie Barnett Sager.
Some of the other main roles include: Mr. Tumnus, performed by Erik Chirkoff and Christian Braz; Lucy by Elizabeth Kessel, Alexandra Allocco and Alannah Allocco; Susan by Soriah Everghard, Lyndsey Ruiz and Rachel Hall; Edmund by Reed Washington, Jonathan Whitcomb and Zeke Richards, and Peter by Dakota Ruiz and Ronnie Metcalf.
The production is adapted by Don Quinn, from the C.S. Lewis Story, and produced by special arrangements with the Dramatic Publishing Company of Woodstock, Ill. Additional music is provided by Mike Phipps, Peter Curtis, Jessica Lucas and Randi Olsen.
And as in past at Live Oak productions, each performance will include dessert, with tables set around a thrush stage. The creatures of Narnia will wander through the audience throughout the show.
Vanni said audiences should expect a special treat.
"With the combination of animal characters and human characters, with a powerful story by C.S. Lewis driving everything," he said, "this is poised to be one of the most interesting endeavors Live Oak has ever attempted."