Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
In the Brothers Grimm classic, young Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods by their loving father and evil stepmother. Things go from bad to worse for the siblings when they run into a full size gingerbread house inhabited by a scheming witch. Burns cleverly updates the story with a father who hits hard times when his factory shuts down, an urban wasteland scarier than any forest, and an industrious witch (Anita Holland is fabulous) who plies the children with iPads as well as sweet cakes. Alan Brincks is instantly sympathetic as the good-hearted but weak-willed father. It is hard to feel the same sympathy for Hansel and Gretel (Sean Bradley and Clare O'Malley), who come off as a bit obnoxious and feckless. Part of the problem is that Bradley and O'Malley attempt to conjure their ten-year-old selves with wide-eyed expressions, exaggerated fidgeting, and the sort of enthusiastically exaggerated movement that would be right at home in a "Sesame Street" stage show.
Gretel loves stories and as the siblings proceed on their adventures she has the opportunity to hear several tales written by the Brothers Grimm. Some of these tales are acted out as a series of vignettes and they are spectacular. "The Cat and the Mouse in Partnership" (performed brilliantly by Anita Holland and Bob Stineman) is everything a modern fairy tale should be: absurd, compelling, funny, and intriguing with an appropriately dubious moral conclusion because "that is the way of the world." "The Fisherman and His Wife" is a wonderful marriage of descriptive diction and cunning stagecraft. Faith Fossett and Bob Stineman give great performances as the ambitious wife and her much put upon husband, with Anita Holland doing a remarkably good impression of a magically floating fish. Bob Stineman is death itself in the tale of "Godfather Death." He and Alan Brinks (who plays both the desperate father and youngest son) create a chilling and memorable tableau. There is artistry and innovation in how these stories are performed, but the tales themselves hew impressively close to the 1812 originals.
"In My Kitchen" at the top of the second act is a great number and the highlight of the original score. "The Children's Prayer" and "I Can Cook Too" are memorable songs with strong melody and message. Even the simple but high energy "Nothing Quite Like Nature" works well in this production. "I Just Can't Stop Myself (Whisk, Bake)," which is a spoof of Silentó's "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)," is funny for a minute, but goes on for far too long. The show's opening number "Come and Dance With Me" is generic. David Cope is clearly a sizeable talent, but it feels like he just phoned it in for some of the songs.
Although they are over 200 years old, the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm are still oddly disturbing and undeniably captivating. Alexander Bruns captures the essence of these stories and reimagines them in a way that will appeal to both first time listeners and long time fans. Bring your parents and your kids and let yourself get lost in the strange worlds, unusual characters, and dangerous adventures of Hansel and Gretel.
Quintessence Theatre Group's Hansel and Gretel runs through January 3rd, 2016, at the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. For tickets or visit www.QuintessenceTheatre.org or call 215-987-4450. For ticket information please email BoxOffice@QuintessenceTheatre.