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The Dead Prince at Strange Tree Group: Theater review

A princess quests to bring the true love she never met back from the dead in Strange Tree's charming play-with-music.

 (Photograph: Emily Schwartz)
1/4
Photograph: Emily SchwartzThe Dead Prince at Strange Tree Group
 (Photograph: Emily Schwartz)
2/4
Photograph: Emily SchwartzAnn Sonneville and company in The Dead Prince at Strange Tree Group
 (Photograph: Emily Schwartz)
3/4
Photograph: Emily SchwartzDan Behrendt,Michael Thomas Downey,Sarah Scanlon andKate Nawrockiin The Dead Prince at Strange Tree Group
 (Photograph: Emily Schwartz)
4/4
Photograph: Emily SchwartzScott Cupper and company in The Dead Prince at Strange Tree Group

Poor Will (Zachary Sigelko). The handsome young minstrel is clearly head-over-heels in love with his best friend, Princess Sara (Ann Sonneville), and it seems she feels it too. But the princess, like so many royals whose domains include enchanted forests, is tied to the idea that she has a predestined True Love—and all of the magic mirrors in the land keep insisting she's missed her chance: Sara's TL prince passed away before she could meet him. Yet the 13th and final magic mirror, a trapped wizard named Maldorf (Michael Thomas Downey) with an agenda of his own, suggests they could bring Prince True Love back from the dead; Sara, Maldorf and a reluctant Will set off a-questing.

Emily Schwartz, Strange Tree Group's artistic director and resident playwright, here adds composer and lyricist to her résumé. The Dead Prince isn't quite what I'd call a full musical, but it's peppered with a number of lovely songs in the folk-pop vein, performed by the cast on guitar, banjo, violin, accordion and more; Sigelko also supplies the musical arrangements. (This seems a fair time to pause and marvel at the remarkable number of Chicago actors who are also talented multi-instrumentalists. For every Once or John Doyle production on Broadway, it seems we could name five examples of casts providing their own accompaniment on our stages.)

Schwartz's always enjoyable sense of macabre whimsy shows up with the untombing of the title character (the delightfully weird Scott Cupper, indulging in well-played physical comedy as a barely reanimated corpse), and her plotting charmingly subverts some of the usual fairy-tale tropes—giving the princess agency to make her own choice, for example, and serving as a caution against the idealistic trap of True Love. You root for Sara to snap out of it and see what's in front of her. And Downey enjoys some delicious moments as the mage in the mirror.

But there remain some strains in the story's internal logic that Schwartz and director Paul S. Holmquist don't fully cover over—the main one being, if Sara's True Love is plainly standing right next to her, why have 13 different magic mirrors told her otherwise? The framing device of a band of bandit storytellers gets muddied as well once they enter their own tale. And in group numbers, the unmiked actors have a hard time getting Schwartz's lyrics across over multiple instruments. Still, The Dead Prince is a lively new fable with appeal for older kids and adults too.

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