At 7:24, six minutes before Howl’s Moving Castle’s scheduled showtime, Sophie Hatter (Rachel Guyer-Mafune) quietly assumed the stage. She walked behind a table, almost totally obscured by the large hats and . She retrieved a hat from a tall dresser and sat down on a stool, quietly sewing a ribbon to the brim. Most of the audience didn’t notice her, or if they did, they kept talking. When her stepmother Fanny Hatter (Alyssa Keene) takes the stage at the start of the play, even she fails to notice Sophie.
Sophie Hatter is my favorite protagonist in all of fiction, and Howl’s Moving Castle, the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, is one of my very favorite books. When I saw photos two years ago from the Book-It Repertory Theatre’s first run of this musical, I regretted that I had missed my chance to see it. Now, I’ve finally had my chance…and I’m glad I did.
Diana Wynne Jones’ story, like all of her stories, is subtle, magical, hilarious, and brilliantly built, a satisfying puzzle of story and character. The novel is propelled by Sophie’s feelings of plainness, by her own low self-esteem and what that compels her to do. She’s a brilliant protagonist because she sees herself as an everyman, all while being exceptional. The story was previously adapted by Studio Ghibli, in an animated film that only vaguely resembles the novel. The film’s actually very good, it’s just not a good adaptation of the novel.
Book-It Repertory Theatre, however, is a nonprofit theatre group that exclusively adapts the written word for the stage. As they explain on their website, “Book-It Repertory Theatre is a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming great literature into great theatre through simple and sensitive production and to inspiring its audiences to read.” Put simply, their passion is to adapt books and to hopefully help create passion for books in audiences of all ages. Other works adapted this season include Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, and Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and their thirty-season history has included a wide range of classics and favorites.
Howl’s Moving Castle was first adapted and produced for Book-It’s twenty-eighth season in 2017; I first heard about Book-It and their mission because publicity photos of the production went slightly viral on certain portions of the internet. When I heard the production was being re-produced this season, I was eager enough to attend that I, in fact, flew across the country to see it.
Reviews of the 2017 production were mixed, saying that the storytelling was somewhat muddled; the musical was somewhat retooled for 2019, and the program includes a disclaimer that the musical is still changing. I do think that it is still somewhat confused, but this seems to come mostly down to the practical limitations of portraying a reality-bending fantasy world on a stage. The audience never sees the titular moving castle; there’s only one set, so changes in location need to be conveyed by the actors. If I wasn’t a die-hard fan of the novel, I could see how I’d be confused about movement from one place to another.
That said, this production has a lot of brilliance in how it gets character, setting, and shades of meaning across. The ensemble cast plays a wide range of characters; in one scene, a set of three actors moves swiftly from playing men to women simply by changing hats. Characters have outfits in bold, decisive colors, making it easier to tell when actors are playing a named character versus a different ensemble part. (Sophie’s color is gray, which is a perfect choice.) There’s a truly funny and brilliant number, “Cake,” where Sophie believes she is visiting her sister Lettie, only to learn that her other sister, Martha, has charmed herself to look like Lettie. The number switches Lettie Hatter (Fawn Ledesma) and Martha Hatter (Varinique Davis) around in a swirling number as they trade off roles, explaining why they did this in their own and the other’s voices. It should be confusing, but it’s incredibly charming instead.
The entire cast, frankly, is brilliant. When I went, Tyler Rogers got lots of laughs for portraying the dog Percival, Howl’s nephew, and Mrs. Pentstemmon; Andi Alhadeff trades off Miss Angorian, Jane Farrier, and the Witch of the Waste. The cast seems to have been picked for their remarkable abilities to use physical acting to distinguish their characters; even though costumes change, the greatest effect is in how they each hold themselves. The Witch of the Waste towers over the stage, while Jane Farrier stumbles across it; Adam Fontana as Calcifer makes it easy to believe that he’s not truly human.
Rachel Guyer-Mafune’s Sophie is obviously at the heart of the production, and she pulls it off flawlessly. At the heart of the novel is the idea of perception; how complicated it is, how it can seem like reality or become reality because of how fully we believe it. The physicality and the lack of sets actually lends to this; the cast and set have to make us perceive something new by convincing us of it. Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Waste to turn into an old woman. Guyer-Mafune doesn’t put on a new costume or age makeup; but her body curls forward slightly, her voice cracks, and she becomes Old Sophie. Particularly impressive, Guyer-Mafune manages to give both young and old Sophie separate singing voices.
I don’t know how much I want to say about the climax, except I definitely cried. Everything the book has built about perception, about Sophie’s worries, comes crashing down in a beautiful sort of mess of characters and clashing ideas of what is happening, and the musical portrays it faithfully and to great effect. It’s the moment that Sophie has with her stepmother Fanny (Alyssa Keene) that always gets me, and this was no exception.
Diana Wynne Jones has this brilliant thing she does where she has these very sudden, surprise endings that aren’t really a surprise because she’s laid the groundwork with carefully crafted words and turns of phrase. She has a knack for saying a character is angry about dust in a way that tells you that they’re actually in love with another character. I worried that, in a stage production, Jones’ style would be lost, leaving the ending feeling rushed or unjustified. But far from it; the ending pulled just the same magic trick as Jones, bringing to it that sort of ringing, ecstatic satisfaction that you can only get from the endings of musicals.
The Book-It Repertory Theatre’s mission is to help convey the magic of books to the stage, and it succeeded. Under the direction of Myra Platt, with the music and lyrics of Justin Huertas, and the orchestrations of Steven Tran, Howl’s Moving Castle soars on the same wind as its namesake.