Lauren Farnell is appearing in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” at Imagination Stage, but she has memories of a different holiday tradition.
“We’d go to the Papermill Playhouse to see ‘A Christmas Carol’ every year,” said Farnell, who grew up in Northern New Jersey. “That was something I loved to share with my parents, growing up. It was really special to me.”
That is one reason why the 24-year-old musician and theatre artist is finding so much joy as a cast member in Imagination Stage’s remount of its Helen Hayes Award-winning production, which takes the classic C.S. Lewis novel of Narnia and adds music, puppetry, ballet and modern dance to create a holiday tradition for a new generation.
“I think it’s perfectly placed,” said Farnell. “It’s winter in Narnia, and this is a great holiday-time play; it’s so important for kids to see generosity, humanity and a loving spirit during the holidays, when there can be so much ‘I want.’”
Indeed, the story of the Pevensie children, who escape the air raids in London circa World War III, is one of courage, love and collaboration. In that they find an extraordinary adventure when they wander through a wardrobe and into a magical kingdom to fight against evil, the actor sees something kids can relate to.
“These four siblings are in crisis,” she said, “and they have a mission to complete. They have to work together, be generous to each other and help one another to achieve their goal.”
Farnell’s goal, from an early age, has been to make music — and perform musical theatre. “I started dancing when I was really young,” said Farnell, who grew up in northern New Jersey playing “a ton of instruments and always singing. I started doing musicals when I was in middle school.”
The only child of parents who enjoyed music but weren’t particularly theatrical, Farnell attended the Somerset County Vocational and Technical High School, a performing arts high school in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and was exposed to a wide range of artistic disciplines. She also developed a passion for the Spanish language, which led her to American University, where she studied abroad in Madrid and earned a bachelor’s degree in musical theatre and Spanish translation.
“A lot of BFA programs weren’t going to allow me to do an interdisciplinary study,” she noted. “But American has a huge focus on international service, and I was able to take a ton of Spanish classes, which was a huge draw for me.”
Also a draw: Farnell’s professors at American University had close ties to the D.C. theatre scene, and she leapt right into it, guided by Tom Story, who directed her as an understudy in last year’s repertory of “Anatole: Mouse Magnifique” and “Dickens’ Davy Copperfield” at Imagination Stage. Now she’s in Narnia, singing, dancing and battling the White Witch so that Aslan the lion can restore order to the magical kingdom.
“The audiences love the story,” laughed Janet Stanford, the show’s director and Imagination Stage’s founding artistic director. “They’re very excited to see the witch get what she deserves and see the story end happily.
“There is an appearance by Father Christmas, as he is called by C.S. Lewis, so it’s actually more of a holiday show than a summer show.”
Originally produced by Imagination Stage in the summer of 2012, “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” was conceived by Stanford, Kathryn Chase Bryer, David Palmer and former Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre, with original music by Matthew Pierce.
“This is not as heavily balletic as the original,” said Stanford, noting that Palmer is on board to “modify the original to maximize the talents of the new cast. “It still feels like a big production,” she added. “Audiences are amazed at the curtain call, when 12 people come out and they feel like they’d seen 20!”
Part of the credit for that goes to cast members like local legend Patricia Hurley, national touring actor Ryan Sellers and Helen Hayes Award-winning actor and puppeteer Matthew Aldwin McGee. “I kind of grew up in the performing arts,” said McGee, 34, whose father was a ventriloquist. “The first thing I remember really acting in was one of the summer theatre camps my parents did.”
Raised in Hanford, California in a family thoroughly immersed in theatre — “We used to do puppet shows as a family; I didn’t think of it as unusual until I got older” — McGee was destined for the stage, writing plays, performing, and designing and crafting puppets.
“I always wanted to work with my hands, and build, and tell stories,” he explained. “Throughout high school, I did theatre and I also did Odyssey of the Mind, which gave me performing experience and creative thinking and problem-solving skills.”
He wanted to go to film school and direct, but ended up at California State University at Fresno and earning a bachelor of arts degree in theatre and doing freelance work as a scenic designer and puppeteer for a year before landing in the D.C. area.
“I was a finalist in the American College Theatre Festival in Los Angeles, and won,” he explained. While competing in the Nationals at the Kennedy Center he auditioned for (and got) an acting fellowship at The Shakespeare Theatre; he moved to D.C. in 2011 and has been here ever since.
“Mostly, I consider myself a character actor,” he mused. “I play ‘awkward nerds’ very well. But I try not to limit myself because I like the challenge of trying all aspects of theatre.”
Which is why in addition to making people laugh, which he loves to do, McGee takes on the “regal and godly” role of Aslan, steering a giant lion puppet (along with cast members Suzy Alden and Jay Frisby) that Stanford said was inspired by seeing productions of “War Horse” in London’s West End and on Broadway.
“I have an awareness of what he should be focused on and how to create some expressions,” McGee said. “Puppetry is a good skill to have as an actor; as a designer, there were troubleshooting moments where I could collaborate a little with the show’s designers — while respecting them as the designer and creator of the puppets. I can keep an eye on things, bringing up suggestions and ideas. Erik [Van Wyck] has been great about letting me collaborate.”
If you ask Farnell, it’s that kind of collaboration that the holidays are all about.
“Sometimes, the holiday season tends to have people tear apart because ‘what they want’ is so much in the forefront of their minds,” she observed. “But that more giving, caring nature gets us by the end of the play, and that’s so appropriate for the holiday season.
“That, and Santa,” she added with a laugh.
“The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” runs through Jan. 5 in Imagination Stage’s Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. For tickets, ranging from $15 to $35, call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.