Grimm's Hansel and Gretel starts grim and ends gorgeous at CTC
Poverty and real hunger exists in the U.S., and it's not something most of us see or think about. I admire Staffa's challenge to audiences, young and old, as she confronts them with the anguish of poverty, but it's hard to make dire need sustain dramatic momentum. In spite of strong acting and singing, the musical's opening feels long and grim.
In Staffa's story, Hansel and Gretel do not have a wicked stepmother, but their own mother, whose starving state is beginning to make her unstable. A hauntingly wan Annie Enneking plays Mother, and in a tense scene, Mother surrenders to the psychosis of starvation and demands that her husband take the children into the woods and leave them. No act of hate, this, but rather an act of despair to give the children some chance of survival.
As Father, Steve Hendrickson is not Grimm's pawn in the hands of a dominant woman, but a desperate man, with a dying wife and two children whom he cannot feed. In vain, he tries to jolly things along at home and he conveys his love for his children, even as he abandons them deep in the forest.
Young Nathan Barlow excels as Hansel; he has an engaging stage presence, and he sings and dances with skill and confidence. He is well-matched by accomplished Leah Curney as his big sister, Gretel, although Curney is, perhaps, a little old for the role. They bring brave humor to the first act in the song "Hail to the Stomach," and they dance with exuberance in Joe Chvala's playful choreography.
Michael Sommers has designed a simple but versatile set of a great woven sackcloth for act one. Monotone in color, it forms a lean-to hovel, in which the family lives, and a rough bank along a country path.
Two pantomime-style, clownish gentleman (Alex Morf and Gerald Drake), dressed in Karin Kopishke's outrageously over-the-top costumes, happen upon the foraging children in the woods. They bring both light relief to the gray first act and careless cruelty, as they consume food in front of the starving family, then accuse them of greed for asking to eat.
The second act opens on Sommers' brightly colored set of a house built out of food to tempt the hungry. Best of all, it brings Carolyn Goelzer on stage as the Witch. Dressed in ugly-sister style wig and costume, she infuses the musical with mad-cap energy, nightmare fun and a good dollop of magic. This witch is blind and, before she forces Gretel to slave for her, she reflects her own exploited past as she shouts out orders to herself in a curious New York Jewish accent. From this point on, Hansel and Gretel zips towards its fairly happy ending.
Resourceful Gretel outwits the Witch, and the oven scene ends in a smashing dramatic moment. I say no more, but guarantee that it's worth waiting for.
This production has much going for it - a serious undertone, artistic director Peter Brosius' clever staging, dream sequences with stick puppets, and a snowy owl that flies with the poetry of a real bird; lively music, under the direction of Michael Koerner, Ruth McKenzie's original lyrics and fine acting.
Yet that challenging first act left me feeling uncomfortable and flat. But it made me aware of what chronic hunger must be like. My recommendation: bring only 10 year-olds and up, enter the distress of the first act and enjoy the drama of the second. After the play, be prepared to talk to children about extreme poverty, and bring generous donations for the food shelf bins at the theater
Hansel and Gretel August 31 - October 9, 2004. Wednesdays and Thursdays - 7:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Call for Saturday matinees. $9 - $30. Call for Pay-What-You-Can shows. Children's Theatre Company , 2400, Third Avenue South, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-874-0400. www.childrenstheatre.org.