Local stuntman helps choreograph battle scenes

by: COURTESY PHOTO: CHLOE FALLS - The White Witchs evil dwarf (Fred Sherrill) threatens luckless human Edmund Pevensie (Breanna Grimes), while reindeer Alyssa Kittle and Athena VanDyke wait for orders.James Friend, a stunt performer for Timothy Hutton in the locally-filmed TNT series “Leverage,” never expected to use his professional skills in Forest Grove with a bunch of children in animal costumes.

But that's what happened when Friend, a set designer, and his wife, Michelle, a veteran director, took over the Theater in the Grove show “Narnia” after the original director resigned weeks into rehearsals. They inherited a cast of 28 and worked swiftly to transform the stage into a frozen winter-land that has not seen summer in 100 years.

Based on “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”—the first of C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia”—this adaptation includes music by Thomas Tierney and lyrics by Ted Drachman.

The story follows four siblings to the English countryside, through the wardrobe of an old manor and into the enchanted world of Narnia, filled with creatures and spirits of myth and fable, both good and evil.

The inhabitants of Narnia are intelligent, speaking animals ruled by the majestic lion, Aslan, and they hope to see fulfillment of a prophecy that someday four humans will enter Narnia and end the spell of the evil witch who has kept them in a cold, perpetual winter.

The Forest Grove cast had just a short time to learn the stunts choreographed in the musical’s three fight scenes, but fortunately they had Friend to show them how it’s done. While no one in TITG's production will be getting blown up or thrown from an explosion, Friend, a native Texan who's told he looks like Hutton, used his Hollywood-class training in choreography to help the Narnians stage an authentic battle.

The challenge? Picture 20 kids and adults on stage dressed as animals and wielding swords. “It's all about safety,” Friend said. “There is no running, weapons must be in our hands, and be able to protect ourselves and the audience... because anything can happen.”

While sword-fighting may capture much of the audience's attention, the rest will be swept in by Friend’s set.

Inspired by old, pop-up Christmas cards and using recycled material from past performances, Friend and his volunteer construction crew took advantage of the stage's depth to build the sets in layers — from the manor's cozy fireplace mantle to the wooden wardrobe to the wintry, white willows and dangling icicles of Narnia, where fog lurks and snow falls.

Adding to the mood are 30 musical numbers, from  jazz to ballads to operetta, with an orchestra directed by Seung-Jin Bae.

Costume designer Kelcey Weaver took a masquerade approach to the animals, who wear human clothes from the neck down, but don antlers or masks from the head up, Friend said. This allows the characters’ acting to come through more than a fuzzy fur costume would, he said.

Last performed at Theater in the Grove in 1996, “Narnia” features several inter-related cast members this time around. Fred Sherrill, who plays a dwarf, for example, is thrilled to be on stage with his son, Clay Sherrill, who plays Peter Pevensie.

“It's all about community,” said Friend, in a slight southern drawl. “And how the community comes together to really make it happen.  They want to make it the best-quality entertainment.”

This will be James and Michelle Friend's final show at Theater in the Grove, as they will be heading back to Texas to be closer to family after sending their son off to college. “Our hearts will be here," Friend said, "and we'll visit often.”

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