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Engelbert Humperdinck – the 19th-century German opera composer, not the contemporary English pop singer – was probably glad he listened to his sister.
Adelheid Wette requested that her brother compose music for a libretto she had written for her children for Christmas based on the Grimm Brothers’ version of “Hansel and Gretel.” After several revisions, Humperdinck turned the musical sketches and songs he had written into full-fledged opera – probably his most famous work.
Specifically, said Christopher Piper, co-founder and artistic director of The Puppet Co. Playhouse, Wette intended to use her brother’s music for a puppet show.
That makes it a “natural” for the Playhouse to present its own show of the beloved fairy tale. Not to mention that as a child and young man growing up in Hawaii, Piper used to perform “Hansel and Gretel” along with his brothers in his parents’ puppeteering company.
“When I was a toddler, I played a mushroom,” he laughed.
Now Piper is doing much more – he’s playing all the roles in The Puppet Co.’s 40-minute production – young, older, male, female – performing all the voices live.
“We don’t use canned speech, so I get to do Gretel,” Piper said. “It is unique for a man to do all the parts, but it’s all in a puppeteer’s bag of tricks.”
He uses marionettes for the show, as well as his parents’ script.
It may not seem wise to tinker with such a well-known and much-loved fairy tale, but, as Piper pointed out, its very popularity – and the fact that it passed down orally – has guaranteed changes have crept in over time. That goes for The Puppet Co. production as well.
While in the Grimm Brothers’ version the evil stepmother convinces her husband to send the children away because of lack of food, “she has been transformed in our production to a kinder and gentler version,” said Piper. “The witch is still the witch, but she’s funny more than scary, to appeal to the younger set.”
As per the Humperdinck opera, in fact, both mother and father are “very sympathetic.”
Early on, The Puppet Co., started out with two productions, “Pinocchio” and “Peter the Wolf,” but the company wanted to expand its repertoire and added “Hansel and Gretel,” said Allan Stevens, the company’s managing director.
Stevens expects no complaints about the changes the company is making in the show, nor about the fact that the witch still gets thrown in the oven instead of the children. He does, however, recall one funny incident when The Puppet Co. received a complaint about not making a change.
Stevens was working box office after a production of “Alice in Wonderland.”
“Twenty minutes later, a man came over and said he wanted his money back,” he recalled. “He was complaining he had never heard a version of the story where the Red Queen says: ‘Off with her head.’”
Stevens tried to reassure the man that it was “just bluster, not a real threat” – and that the expression appears in every version of “Alice.”
As director of “Hansel and Gretel” and other shows, Stevens oversees possible mishaps – such as marionette strings breaking or getting tangled; or special effects going awry – “ the tree grabbing the kids too hard,” for example.
He makes sure the staging is clean – “not in the way.”
As emissaries for puppetry, too, Stevens points out the art form “invented non-traditional casting.”
“That goes for looks, age, and gender,” he said. “All a puppeteer has to do is be able to communicate a role.”
“Hansel and Gretel” runs Oct. 4-Nov. 16, at the Puppet Co. Playhouse, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo Park. For more information, call 301-634-5380 or visit the website at www.thepuppetco.org.