Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass
Reviewed by Lovell Estell III
24th Street Theatre
Extended through May 21
It’s truly puzzling that many of the world’s most celebrated children’s stories often contain elements that are very unpleasant, and sometimes gore-fest horrible. The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christiansen Anderson, is a good example; in its original version it was utterly gruesome (sorry, Disney!).
There is also an edge of menace in Bryan Davidson’s catchy, updated version of Hansel und Gretel, along with some imaginative surprises. If your childhood memory of this 1812 classic by the Brothers Grimm has now grown dim with the passage of time, don’t worry: This refresher version is quite entertaining. It’s also relevant to today’s dreadfully troubled world, as pointed out by 24th Street Theatre’s executive director Jay McAdams, who — in a pre-show address — referenced desperate parents in Guatemala having to send their children away, hoping they would find better lives elsewhere.
Davidson sets the action in the Kentucky mining town of Butcher Holler during the Great Depression, when the mines have turned into “dead ground” (miner’s jargon for dried up), and poverty, desperation and hunger are the norm. The narrative is framed as a live radio broadcast told by a local favorite, “The Duke,” (Bradley Whitford, appearing via video throughout) who relates the story in response to a letter he’s received from a distressed youngster going through a bad time. Hansel (Caleb Foote) and Gretel (Angela Giarratana), shoeless and starving, have become an unbearable burden to their father, so he tells them he’s sending them off to live with relatives, while actually planning to abandon them in the woods.
Once there, the terrified siblings encounter a mysterious mountain woman (Sarah Zinsser), whom the locals say was born with “powers.” She takes them into her home, feeds them and cares for them, her one rule being that Gretel must sing for her. As time passes, the mountain woman beguiles Gretel with her poisonous charm, and an ugly rift develops between brother and sister that is only resolved by a life-or-death crisis, in which the siblings ultimately realize the love they have for each other.
The performances are resolutely good. Zinsser perfectly channels the creepy deportment of the folklorist’s conjurer, while Foote and Giarratana project a subtly effective yin and yang polarity. Director Debbie Devine has masterfully worked the production elements here to evoke an ambiance that is fairy-tale mysterious and alluring. Matthew G. Hill’s muted video projections, Keith Mitchell’s cutout set piece — which morphs between woods and cavern — Dan Weingarten’s multi-hued lighting, and Chris Moscatiello sound design all flawlessly blend. And it’s all richly complemented by the funky bluegrass tunes of the four-member band, The Get Down Boys.
24th Street Theatre, 1117 West 24th St.,Los Angeles., Sat., 3 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; Extended through May 21; (213) 745-6516 or www.24thstreet.org. Running time: one hour with no intermission.