Traditional folklore doesn’t exactly have a reputation for dispensing valuable lessons about the “real world.” In the modern world, fairy tales are generally synonymous with fanciful magic in simple realms of good and evil. As Winter becomes Spring, First Stage presents a small stage fairy tale for kids 8 years and older that goes beyond overly simplistic good-vs-evil themes to cover a huge range of different issues including the death of a parent, being forced to do things against one’s wishes and even the sometimes ambiguous nature of human morality.
Based in part on Slavic legend, the folk-rock musical Gretel! follows a young girl into the woods to search for the mysterious being known as Baba Yaga. Her mother has passed away and her father has remarried. Now Gretel has to contend with as wicked stepmother and stepsister who force her to do all the work and demand that she steal magic from Baba Yaga in order that they may have food and light. In order to get what she wants, Gretel must work for Baba Yaga, who slowly teaches her magic, forcing Gretel to wonder wether the sinister witch is truly evil or something else altogether. Can she really be that bad if she's sharing her magical knowledge? This isn't some cheery, little Hogwart's with classrooms and teachers and lessons, though. Baba Yaga is a very cunning and demanding mentor who leads Gretel to some pretty shadowy places.
Natalie Ford has wit and wisdom about her in the role of Baba Yaga. There’s a playful darkness about her that seems at once completely honest and completely whimsical. Gretel doesn’t know whether or not to trust her. This could have been terrifying if allowed to develop in a dark direction, but Ford keeps it firmly rooted in a sense of fun and mystery that keeps the mood of the play firmly rooted in drama and solidly removed from realms of nightmare.
Max Mainwood is versatile in a few different supporting roles. He’s a flaky, well-menaing father who trusts his daughter to a new wife he hardly knows. Mainwood also picks up rake and broom in the role of Stepmother and Stepsister as well...effectively selling the idea of a number of other characters with subtle, abstract props and without the benefit of a single costume change.
Ford and Mainwood are joined by a group of kids in one of two different casts. Kids play Gretel herself, a girl, a boy and a cellist. The cellist joins Ford and Mainwood on acoustic instruments that perform some remarkably high-energy folk rock that’s been written specifically for the show.
Scenic Designer Sarah Hunt-Frank has done a brilliant job putting together a very engagingly abstract, little set for the musical. A big, fantasy story featuring moody magic set in the woods might seem ill-suited for the intimacy of a small stage, but Hunt-Frank plays with the wooded imagery in simple, flat planes and cylinders that cleverly calls to the primal aesthetics of a target audience raised with iconic interactive emulations of nature like Minecraft and Roblox. Just to look at it, the simplicity of what Hunt-Frank put together for the stage here would seem a little too quaint to be appealing, but for a generation that’s increasingly interacting in little worlds like this on small glowing screens, it works. Hunt-Franks work here is actually a very, very savvy way to engage kids aesthetically in this kind of cozy, little show.
The iconography is very abstract, but it’s appealing. Stepmother appears onstage as a wooden rake. The stepsister is represented by a wooden broom. The mystical knight of night is a bucket and a sash. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does. And it does so beautifully. (Days after attending the musical, I showed my daughter a picture of a classical wooden rake and we both laughed thinking about the stepmother. It's sharply minimalist design work.) The most appealing, little bit of design work comes in the form of a magical, little boy doll given to Gretel by her late mother. It’s a stylized classical outline of a paper doll-like boy made of fabric. It’s just abstract enough to be cute and just articulate enough to bring a really cool, little emotionally expressive magical character to the small stage. In a show like this, it’s the tiniest things that can make for the biggest magic.
First Stage’s Gretel! runs through March 22nd at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on 325 W. Walnut St. For ticket reservations and more, visit First Stage online.