Getting lost in a Grimm Forest

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Children's theater is tricky stuff.

At its best it can bring a sense of wonder and transformation to the eyes of young and old. At it's worst it's so sickly sweet and over the top that it's barely watchable - and the little ones are as clear on this as any critic.

Over the past three years, 24th Street theater has turned out two remarkable children's shows that brought a complexity and soul to complicated stories. The first, "Walking the Tightrope" tells of a young girl's annual trip to the seashore that's exactly the same as last year except without her grandmother's presence.

Then last year, 24th Street filled an empty space with simple magic in "Man Covets Bird": a stunning play about a boy heads to the big city with his bird to get a button pushing job. Along the way, he discovers he's forgotten to listen to his passion and has lost his way. While the 7 year old's in the audience were entranced by the music and storytelling, it was the adult's in the audience who's eyes were filled with tears of recognition.

So news that 24th Street was ready to premiere their latest show "Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass" had me filled with childlike anticipation.

At first, it felt like 24th Street was about to repeat their magical spell. The framing device for our trip through the Grimm brother's haunted forest is an old radio. Think the depression era wooden console model with an glowing amber dial. We hear bluegrass music and see a projection of the actor Bradley Whitford, as a radio announcer with suspenders, pork pie hat, and silver flask at the ready. After getting a letter from a young listener, our radio announcer narrator launches into the tale of "Hansel and Gretel" to make him better.

Now, I don't know the last time you cracked Grimm's fairy tales but they are a lot darker than you remember. While they are a powerful way of imparting a sense of fear and order on a young mind, they are not feel good affairs. Even the basic premise, that a poor father would abandon his children in the forest is a tough one to fathom. If you're going to choose "Hansel and Gretel" as inspiration for play, your audience needs to understand why.

What's inside of this classic fairy tale that we need to hear now?

It's a bit like the challenge with any classic. It's not enough that it's a classic.

Unfortunately, playwright Bryan Davidson never really finds his own reason for telling this story. Bluegrass and 1930s Appalachia give us a where and the Great Depression gives us a "why then?" but we never understand "why now?" More troubling, the most active dramatic moments of the Hansel and Gretel tale, where the kids find their own ability and discover their way back to home and family or recognize the deceptive spell of false riches - these moments are curiously passive for our young protagonists. We're quickly told this part of the story instead of being shown it.

All of this makes Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass a strangely unsatisfying journey. I felt a bit stuck in a dark forest where you're dad might abandon you, a witch might deceive you, and where sharing your song might imprison you. I'm all for trusting children to sort through a complicated moral landscape.  I'm just not sure why 24th Street wants to tell this story to children and adults right now. And it feels like they aren't exactly sure either.

Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass plays at 24th Street Theatre downtown through December 11.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 60 minutes without an intermission

Photo: Angela Giarratana and Caleb Foote in Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass (Cooper Bates)