How do you solve a problem like “Howl’s Moving Castle”?
Book-It Repertory Theatre’s 2017 production of a new musical adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel had its charms, but they were largely superseded by a host of issues: an overstuffed book, a quantity-over-quality score and an unimaginative staging that was about as magical as a trip to the drugstore.
“Howl’s Moving Castle” already has one beloved adaptation — Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 animated film — and there were high hopes surrounding Book-It’s take on the story of a young woman who must contend with life-altering spells, a dastardly witch and a mercurial wizard.
It’s clear Book-It thought they could improve their staging — and in revisiting the show two years later, they have.
Justin Huertas’ score, which comprised about two dozen songs in the first iteration, has been honed, with new arrangements and orchestrations by Steven Tran that add depth and differentiation to Huertas’ canny melodies.
Myra Platt’s book still struggles to wrestle Jones’ convoluted plot into submission, particularly in a second act that feels both hurried and eternal with its parade of revelations and reversals. But Platt’s direction is much sharper this time, with a visual strategy that uses choreographed ensemble movement to great effect.
Perhaps most crucial: An ostensibly higher budget adds a polish that was distinctly lacking the first go-around. Christopher Mumaw’s elegant new set design creates locations with personality, while Andrew D. Smith’s lighting amps up the drama with stark shadows and bold purples and greens. Jocelyn Fowler’s whimsical costume design is stocked with looks befitting a fantasy land.
Rachel Guyer-Mafune, who appeared in a supporting role in the 2017 production, stars as Sophie Hatter, the eldest daughter of three, which in the land of Ingary means she’s destined for failure. “I know what’s meant for me,” she sings in one of Huertas’ catchy refrains — alternately a statement of resignation or determination, depending on the scene.
Guyer-Mafune is a bright spot in every show she’s in, and her conversion from sanguinely dutiful daughter to plucky, prickly heroine is as delightful as her creaky in-character singing voice after Sophie is transformed into a 90-year-old woman.
There are a lot of spells deployed in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” but the show’s crux is this one, when the evil Witch of the Waste (Andi Alhadeff, showing off a powerful voice) turns Sophie old. It’s far easier to just accept the tautology — witch casts the spell because she’s evil; she’s evil because she casts the spell — than explicate her reasons, which involve a murky plot to overthrow the king and exact revenge on the wizard Howl (Nicholas Japaul Bernard).
Howl’s motivations aren’t cleanly defined either — though that’s more of a feature than a bug. Besides his enchanted castle, the inscrutability is kind of his whole thing. Unfortunately, that was taken to another level on opening night, as Bernard, on mandated vocal rest, stood there gesturing silently during all his scenes. Huertas sat just offstage, providing his dialogue and songs in a “joys of live performance” workaround that was adequate, if obviously detrimental to the leads’ chemistry. (After several performances on rest, Bernard is back to singing and speaking his part, Book-It said.)
The streamlined ensemble, with two fewer members than the previous production, helps bolster the songs with strong harmonies, and everyone gets at least one featured role — including Alyssa Keene as Sophie’s stepmother, who gets her groove back, and Adam Fontana as feisty fire demon Calcifer, who commiserates with Sophie over their shared spellbound state.
Book-It, whose process involves frequent revisions, sometimes right up to opening night, clearly hasn’t been daunted by coming back to “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the first full-fledged musical in company history. And the process likely continues: The program notes, “ ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ is a new musical in development.” The results from that development represent a significant leap forward since we last saw the show two years ago.
“Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, adapted by Myra Platt, music and lyrics by Justin Huertas; through Dec. 29; Center Theatre at the Armory, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $20-$50; 206-216-0833, book-it.org