By MIKE DUNHAM
"Who do you know in the cast?" asked the ticket-seller as I paid to get into the premiere of a new musical version of "Hansel and Gretel." The suggestion that no one would be there unless related to a cast member hit me as a little unsettling. But when someone takes the time to rework the Grimm Brother's archetypal classic and compose fresh music for it, one must take note.
The first thing to note is that the above press photo depicts a scene not presented on stage.
The second thing is that Shane Mitchell's adaptation does not shape the fairy tale into a revisionist commentary, like "Wicked" or "Into the Woods."
The core of the script still centers on the well-known adventures of the two siblings (Ryan Toney and Olivia Route), their woodsman father (Nathan Huey), prickly step-mother (Colby Bliecher), a comically predatory witch (Erin Dagon Mitchell) and assorted spirits. Opening and closing scenes of Bavarian townfolk provide roles for a few extra adults and a swarm of village children, though they felt tacked onto the central plot for some reason other than dramatic exposition. The action and resolution follow the course of the Grimms' version.
The third thing: This is not Humperdinck, whose sumptuous operatic setting remains the gold standard of theatrical Hanseliana. Dennis Cleary's songs, while varied, are simple, predictable and somewhat infectious. They are written with an eye toward being quickly mastered, even by actors who may not have much musical training, and easily absorbed by a young audience. For the most part, they are effective to that end, though sometimes the words were crowded and hard to decipher.
The spoken elocution was all clear, however, even with the youngest (like 2nd grade) thespians. As a troupe, the children sang and danced the oom-pahish "Gingerbread Waltz" quite well. The best voices were probably those of Leah Mattfield, in the limited role of The Swan, the children's guardian spirit, and Luke Bartholomew who, as Herr Burgermeister, sang the tale of the Witch to the frightened, but incredulous dirndl- and lederhose-clad townskids.
The most intriguing writing came in "Starving," in which the Stepmother, deploying a litany of persuasively logical arguments and challenges, browbeats her husband into luring his own children to their deaths. With a petter performance, it might reflect some of the more wirey numbers from "Les Mis."
However, Dagon Mitchell's "I'm Just Hungry" was the musical hit of the night, a fast and funny apology for cannibalism, half vamp, half patter-song. The crowd, um, ate it up.
We can all acknowledge what the Witch proclaims; there's something about "Hansel and Gretel" that sticks to your ribs, an eternal children's yarn that leaves adults musing whenever it's told and, just about, however it's told.
Running 90 minutes, including intermission, the Mitchell/Cleary rendition is more highly suited to contemporary youth audiences than either Humperdinck's big opera or the Grimms' dark original. Half of the opening night crowd appeared to be pre-teens - and those that I could see were universally transfixed by what was happening on stage.
Which, as I said, does not include the scene in the picture at the top of this entry.
TBA Theatre's production of "Hansel and Gretel" will be presented 7 p.m. Fri. and Sat. and 3 p.m. Sun. through May 18 at APU's Grant Hall. During intermission, gingerbread men are sold at the concession stand by adult members of the cast... the younger cast members are nowhere to be seen. Hmm.