Summer Stock Austin's A Shoe Story

Allen Robertson and Damon Brown's new musical reinvents "The Elves and the Shoemaker" as a timely tale of refugees but in a clever, playful way


(l-r): David Peña (Bo), Megan Hudson (Sydney), and Mariela Denson (Mel) in A Shoe Story (Photo by Summer Stock Austin)

These are desperate days for elves. Their homeland is on fire – literally – and has grown so dangerous that to escape they're willing to cross the border into "The Greatest Country in the World," that is, human territory, where all of elvish extraction is denigrated, derided, and demonized. In such a hostile climate, the homeless elves take care to keep hidden and try to exchange free labor for a roof over their heads – as with a pair who manage to make their way into the waterlogged village of Blorg and surreptitiously take shelter in a shoemaker's shop. Their hope is that in return for turning out some enchanted footwear, the owner will grant them safe haven. All they need, the elves tell her, is "momentary sanctuary."

Yes, the elves in A Shoe Story are refugees, and their status as such in Allen Robertson and Damon Brown's delightfully imaginative reinvention of "The Elves and the Shoemaker" is as pointed as their ears. Just as in the duo's prior musicals for Summer Stock Austin (The Steadfast Tin SoldierTortoise & Hare, and Stone Soup), Brown and Robertson have taken figures of old fairy tale and fable and recast their world in a contemporary mold, loaded with the crises and conflicts that fill today's headlines. It's the team's way of having these timeless characters wrestle with timely moral issues, the very ones the show's young audiences do – such as being different or dealing with others who are different, recognizing the hardships of others and feeling empathy and compassion for them, realizing that one person can make a difference and making the effort to help. The script uses the tale's elf-human division to take on matters related to immigration and refugees, but it also employs the shoemaker's economic situation to address issues about capitalism, like taking advantage of cheap labor and cashing out a profitable business but leaving those who do the actual work out in the cold.

Forgive me if that makes the show sound like a heavy slog. It's anything but. Robertson and Brown's characteristic light touch keeps A Shoe Story on its toes – and don't pardon the pun, because groaners like that are key to the musical's buoyant tone. The elves, you see, have a weakness for wordplay, so much of one they settle disputes with pun-stuffed rap battles. One highlight here is the "shoe-off" between cobbler Sydney and elf Mel in which the two swap as many footwear-themed quips as Imelda Marcos had shoes. On top of being infectiously playful, the number has the rhythm and spirit of 21st century musical theatre – Word up, Lin-Manuel Miranda! – a quality that's heard throughout the score, which adds to A Shoe Story's current and fresh feel.

Best of all, Brown and Robertson understand character, and deliver it in spades. They create figures we relate to and care about, making us want to follow them in much the way we do characters in a Pixar film. A Shoe Story's topicality works in large part because we're worried for the diminutive Mel (played here by the disarmingly droll Mariela Denson) and her Will Farrell elf-sized companion Bo (David Peña channeling Farrell's Buddy: not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree yet true of heart and ever endearing). Also, we don't want to see young shoemaker Sydney forced to give up the family business after 13 generations (Megan Hudson as a sweet optimist fighting to keep a brave face under mounting pressure). So the problems they confront – of prejudice, of poverty, of safety, of fairness – arise naturally from who they are and what happens to them rather than some artificial debate. That "story" in the title isn't just a word; it's what makes the show work.

The Summer Stock Austin student performers get that, too, and every one commits in a personal way to spinning the narrative. They also get the show's humor and play it so the production sports the deliciously subversive streak of a great cartoon – say, Bullwinkle or The Simpsons. And their energy and talent is on par with SSA's other outstanding productions. Thanks to the show's cast and creators, A Shoe Story is at once thoughtful and playful, joyous and feeling, a musical with heart and – you know I can't not say it – sole.


A Shoe Story

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Through Aug. 12
Running time: 1 hr., 10 min.




Summer Stock Austin has a fine tradition of not only providing a performance opportunity for Texas’ most talented young actors, but also, with their Theatre-for-All shows, of creating theater appropriate for younger audience members.

This tradition continues this year with the world premiere of a new family-friendly musical, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” written by Allen Robertson and Damon Brown, with music, lyrics, and direction from Robertson, playing through Aug.13 in the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theatre.

Loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name (which brought toys to life a century and a half before Pixar did so), “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” tells the story of Lucas, a tin soldier in love with a ballerina princess, and Zoey, a rag-doll who chafes against being at the bottom rung of the toys’ caste system simply because of the material she is made out of. Together, the two embark on a quest out of the workshop where they were created, with Lucas looking for a cure to the disease that threatens to kill the princess and Zoey searching for a place where she will be valued and loved.

Connor Barr, as Lucas, and Lena Owens, as Zoey, are both charming and warm throughout, providing a welcoming overtone to the show that keeps kids in the audience feeling safe even when the plot gets somewhat frightening or sinister. The welcome appearances throughout of comedic dynamo David Peña, in multiple roles, also help to create this atmosphere.

Much of the story of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, though, is quite dark, dealing as it does with themes of death, war, abandonment, and existential angst.

This is reflected, literally, in murky, atmospheric lighting from Scott Vandenberg, and simple, portable black set pieces from scenic designer Theada Bellenger. As such, the show might be a little intense for the youngest of children (though it’s important to remember that kids are often made of sterner stuff than we think, a lesson imparted by this very show).

The moral of “Tin Soldier” may go over the heads of young audience members, but the values it espouses – reaffirming the power of friendship and of inner strength and determination – will hit home with parents. Both, though, will enjoy the simple, effective, classic tricks of theatricality that the production employs (such as the creation of fire and water through roiling colored sheets).

The show’s biggest deficit, however, is the pre-recorded music. Although it is enticing to hear a new musical theater score that can utilize the kinds of audio tricks a live orchestra might not be able to replicate, the resulting audio mix frequently drowns out the performers’ voices, leaving the lyrics unheard and unclear.

On the whole, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” is something rather unique – a full musical aimed at all age groups that doesn’t condescend and which tells a somewhat epic story within the confines of a black box theater.

Children’s theater needs more of these kinds of work, and hopefully Summer Stock Austin will continue to create and produce them for years to come.