By Colin Douglas
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm would be surprised at this new, updated, pop/rock musical version of one of their best-known folktales, Hansel and Gretel, presented at the Broadway Playhouse.
Artistic Director Ernie Nolan has collaborated with Grammy-nominated children’s composer/lyricist Justin Roberts to bring this classic tale into the 21st century. Filled with 14 catchy, joyous soft rock tunes and a cast of lovable characters, many of whom also double in the onstage Grimm Brothers Band, this family musical somewhat follows the original story.
Published in 1812, the Grimm Brothers’ story tells of a poor German woodcutter who, urged by his selfish second wife and motivated by famine, takes his two children deep into the forest, leaving them there to survive on their own. There Hansel and Gretel encounter a cannibalistic witch, with a taste for youngsters, who uses her gingerbread house to lure her victims. After being captured, the young brother and sister eventually outwit the witch and push the villain into her own oven. Then they escape with her treasure and find their way home with enough riches to keep their recently widowed father and themselves comfortable for years to come.
In Nolan and Roberts’ version, the children’s mother Angelika has sadly and mysteriously disappeared years ago. Albert, Hansel and Gretel’s father, is trying to make ends meet as a wood craftsman. As the story begins, he’s created a special clock for the wealthy Duchess Geschwitz (who’s actually Lotte the Witch in disguise). After the clock is accidentally broken, events lead Hansel and Gretel into the Black Forest. They’re aided by Fritz, Hansel’s trusty duck friend, and Ingmar, an enslaved magical Troll, who’s greatest hope is to earn his freedom from the witch.
While the story is charming, made even more by its lovable, funny characters, this musical’s missing some of the basic elements that children who love this folktale have come to expect.
One big plus for parents of young children is that this isn’t a dark version of the tale. The witch, as played with relish by Danny Taylor, is funnier than she is scary. Lotte seems more like a Wagnerian diva than an evil hag. While Taylor impresses with his cartoonish characterization, his songs and his surprising expertise as a saxophonist, Lotte just isn’t the evil crone that most kids are expecting.
The gingerbread house also isn’t nearly as spectacular as one would hope. It’s the centerpiece of this story, but here it looks more like a redecorated version of the Hansel and Gretel homestead. There’s also no cage in which to imprison Hansel, no oven for Gretel to outsmart Lotte and no cache of jewels to reward the children for ridding the land of the witch. And, while the rock band (which sometimes drowns out many of Roberts’ clever lyrics) is a clever way to update this story, the music sometimes overpowers the plot.
The show’s real strength is in its well-written characters and the actors playing them. Ernie Nolan has cast a company of multi-talented artists whose acting chops and musical versatility is considerable. Alissa Walker, for example, is a terrific, show-stopping Gretel. Her vocal talent is clear and astounding and should guarantee her a long career of musical roles. Walker’s Gretel is funny, feisty and refuses be pushed around. While she has her soft spot, Gretel’s the real brains and brawn of this family.
Jack Ball is sweet and appealing as Hansel, with a fine singing voice, himself. His relationship with one of the show’s best characters, Fritz the Duck, is also warm and honest. Royen Kent is both funny and lovable as Hansel’s feathered friend. Along with the earnest and humorous Brenton Abram-Copenhaver as Ingmar, Mr. Kent stands out as one of the band’s two guitarists. Jennifer T. Grubb, who doubles on bass, is a beautiful, loving Angelika, and handsome pianist Pavi Proczko makes a strong, musically competent Albert. The leaders of the band, the Brothers Grimm, are played with earnest enthusiasm by Jeff Kurysz and Jay Mast; and Sadie Glaspey, who plays several minor roles, is the violin virtuoso for this show.
While this new version of the familiar folktale offers catchy music, played by the Grimm Brothers’ Band and sung by a talented company of excellent actors, it’s the play’s characters that outshine the story. Certainly songs like “I Am Always Near,” “There Will Be Magic For You To Find,” and “Crumb by Crumb” are tuneful and toe-tapping, they tend to bog down the story and dilute the magic that younger children have come to the theatre to enjoy. Older kids and their parents, however, will more likely enjoy the musicality of this upbeat production that sports a positive theme of love and family.
“Hansel and Gretel” is through January 4 by Emerald City Theatre and Broadway in Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut, Chicago. Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, by calling the Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
Additional reviews by Colin Douglas and information about this and other area productions are found at www.theatreinchicago.com.