The Hansel and Gretel that we have from the Brothers Grimm is a fairly disturbing story. A famine, a mother (or step-mother depending on which edition of their work one is reading) who wants the children abandoned in the woods, a father who is willing to do so, and, most disturbingly, a witch who eats little children.
Not exactly the stuff of pleasant dreams, the giant gingerbread house notwithstanding.
In order to temper this somewhat, playwright Kristin Walter has written a play about two children who, having heard part of the story of Hansel and Gretel, find themselves living it out in the forest behind their house. Her Hansel and Gretel may not be the one the Brothers Grimm envisioned, but it works better as children’s theatre.
Hank and Gerti (Gilbert Molina and Julie Hochner) are two Appalachian children living with their parents (Alvin Chan and Kelslan Scarbrough) in a small mining town. The coal mine is nearly exhausted, and the family, with no money left, is living off the meager food the land can offer. While picking berries in the woods, Hank and Gerti meet a Witch (Rori Nogee) and entertain her with the story of Hansel and Gretel, the first half of which they heard from their father as a bedtime story. The Witch, being both clever and needing small children to power her magic, decides to build a gingerbread house of her own to trap the children of the town, starting with Hank and Gerti.
Since the parents in this tale love their children, the Witch first poisons them with magic gingerbread, causing them to become selfish and hateful, eventually turning them into gingerbread people with weak minds and weaker wills. Cast out by their parents, Hank and Gerti find the Witch’s gingerbread house, are captured, and well . . . you can figure out the rest.
The move to Appalachia lets the cast sing some marvelous bluegrass, although, for a musical, Hansel and Gretel is a little light on songs. Michael Walter’s music is good, especially when sung by the golden-throated Hochner, who has a real gift for that style of singing. Her solo near the end of the play is easily the musical high point.
The cast is excellent and has good chemistry. While not all their voices are well-suited for complex bluegrass harmonies, they are appealing actors, so any minor problems are easy to forgive. Nogee does an especially good job playing a witch who is evil, but not too evil. No need to scare the audience.
The one drawback of this particular Hansel and Gretel is that it involves a little more work on the part of the children in the audience than a straightforward version does. They have to understand that Hank and Gerti are similar to, but not the same as, Hansel and Gretel. There is less music and dance, indeed less spectacle, than some of the other Manhattan Children’s Theatre productions. Some of the children will be up to the task of paying attention and following the story, but based on the chatter and noise in the audience of the performance I attended, the younger children may have a harder time. This is aggravated by some long scene changes necessitated by Cully Long’s curtain draped set.
Though this is an excellent reimagining of the Hansel and Gretel story, it is better suited for a slightly older crowd than the usual “ages 5 and up.”
Copyright 2008 by Byrne Harrison
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