It’s fitting that a musical about two of the greatest children’s storytellers plays with the concept of telling a story itself. Once upon a time, the narrator tells us, as he creates circles within circles, and stops and starts the tale.
We begin in Cardiff in 1913 where young Stevie (Alice Eklund, filling in for Lily Beau) is to spend Christmas with her Lutheran-looking uncles but a storm transports her into the storybook world of the Grimm-dom. As in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, these fairytale characters enact their stories until Stevie interrupts them.
Cinderella (Katie Elin-Salt) smashes her glass slipper, Rapunzel (Sarah Workman) has her locks cut off and Sleeping Beauty (Bethzienna Williams) is roused awake. Prince Charming (James Ifan), meanwhile, tells of how he was reluctantly turned from a frog into a prince and dreams of going back to his old bog days.
Writer Hannah McPake’s universe is full of fizzing imagination and delightful rebellion: the characters set off on their own yellow brick road to find the brothers who can fix their broken stories but their quest turns into a tussle for freedom, led by the Snow Queen (also played by McPake), who has liberated herself from Hans Christian Andersen’s world and now wants to liberate this one.
Directed by Joe Murphy, there is some wonderful comedy and storytelling but not every song in Lucy Rivers’ score is memorable although some certainly hit the mark. Kyle Lima is like a young Tom Jones as he sings Big Bad Wolf and Williams blows the roof off with her opening number, Wide Awake.
What holds this musical back from being the belter it should be is its pacing. There are also too many repeated refrains, which slow the story down. Some performances are more energetic than others: Williams has a storming voice and stage presence while Ifan, who doubles up in roles, shines in every one. McPake gives a slightly halting performance as Stevie’s mother, but is better as the Snow Queen.
Eklund, the show’s associate director, carries a script in hand and is an able singer and performer. The Grimm brothers (Ifan and Lima) when they finally appear as superstar bros in glittery lederhosen, bring an exuberance that is missing from some scenes.
The imagination in the story is so intelligent that if the pace were tweaked and the performances sharpened, this would have all the makings of a classic hit.
• At Sherman theatre, Cardiff, until 31 December.