You may not have heard of Northwest Children’s Theater’s latest, Chitra: The Girl Prince, but the tale has been around a long time – as the narrators, the gods Madan (Heath Hyun Houghton) and Vasant (Sudipta Majumdar), explain during the setup. “This story is like 5,000 years old,” says Madan.
The title character’s full name is Chitrangadha – which was the name of the dance-drama written in 1892 by Rabindranath Tagore, based on the ancient legend. It came to NWCT through the passion of Artistic Director Sarah Jane Hardy and her co-director and co-choreographer for this play, Anita Menon. They worked closely with first-time playwright Avantika Shankar, who adapted the ancient tale for NWCT audiences.
While the time and place of the play and its origins are far away from Portland, the story – about a young woman torn between love and success – resonates today, when girls and women still find themselves choosing between traditional expectations and their own ambitions and desires.
Alisha Menon, who previously appeared with NWCT in 2015’s The Jungle Book, gives Chitra both strength and vulnerability. She is also a mesmerizing and beautiful dancer – and dance is a large part of this production. (Her mother, co-director and choreographer Anita Menon, is also a renowned dancer.)
Alisha Menon is fantastic when Chitra bickers with her second-in-command in her father’s military, Raje. If the bickering feels especially real, that’s because Raje is played by Avish Menon, Alisha’s younger brother – so they may know a thing or two about squabbles. “I think you just won an argument,” Chitra tells Raje. “Now what?!” he replies.
The gods are also a strong point of the production, with Majumdar providing a healthy dose of skepticism and plenty of raised eyebrows at Madan’s wilder ideas. And Houghton (who also portrays Chitra’s father, the king) is a natural comedian. He will delight audience members of all ages, but is a particular favorite among children.
The play and the acting are strong throughout, but they pale in comparison to where this production most excels: the dancing. Chitra: The Girl Prince starts with a fantastic group of dancers – Alisha Menon among them, and she stands out even before you realize she will be Chitra – who perform several enchanting dances to both start and end the show. The entire cast participates in several song-and-dance numbers that will have the audience wanting to dance along. Luckily for the kids in attendance, they will be invited to get up and dance toward the end. (My own daughter cannot stop talking about the dancing or the gorgeous costumes, designed by Mary Eggers.)
Everything – set, lighting, dance, and story – comes together for Chitra: The Girl Prince and brings this magical tale to life on the stage. Even young audience members will relate to it. Despite the singing, dancing, gods, and a cultural setting unfamiliar to many in the audience, my 5-year-old daughter told me after the play that Chitra is “the most real-life play we have ever seen.” That’s a strong endorsement, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Chitra: The Girl Prince continues through Feb. 25 at Northwest Children’s Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.