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A Fright-Free Witch Tale

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No wicked stepmother plotting to get rid of her stepchildren, no roaring oven and no evil witch with cannibalistic tendencies: Storybook Theatre’s peppy “Hansel and Gretel” at Theatre West is downright nice. A Grimms’ fairy tale, it isn’t.

That, of course, is the point. All of Storybook Theatre’s lighthearted original musicals are aimed at very young children, preschool to about age 6 or 7, and all of them are designed to be cozily nonthreatening.

The shows are also created to give audience members ample opportunity to participate in the proceedings, an element that is a huge hit. Bolder little ones can volunteer to take part on stage; the shyest can contribute without leaving their seats and parental shelter.

Directed by Barbara Mallory Schwartz and written by Lloyd J. Schwartz, this “Hansel and Gretel” is very safe, indeed. We learn the witch’s motivation for mild mischief right from the start: She thinks the play should be “The Wonderful World of the Witch,” so she’ll ply Hansel and Gretel with fattening sweets until they’re too stuffed and lazy to star in the show.

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Meanwhile, it seems that Dad (Brian Fenwick) has lost his woodcutter’s job and there’s no money for food. He asks the audience for alternatives--"Build houses,” “Be a veterinarian"--then departs to peruse the want ads. With good intentions, his offspring decide to help: Hansel (Joel Marshall) and Gretel (Faith Salie at last weekend’s show--Laura Otis usually performs the role) decide to run away, so Dad won’t have to feed them.

On the way out, however, they caution the audience that running away is not a good thing.

The happy ending to the happy tale solves Dad’s unemployment problem and satisfies the ambition of the witch (Diane Berendes). Before that happens, a lonely Birdy (Kim McGuire) has joined the cast of characters, along with several arm-flapping audience volunteers, to help Dad undo the magic spell that holds Hansel and Gretel trapped in an invisible cage--shades of street mimes everywhere.

Cheerful songs by Hope and Laurence Juber and choreography by Rosetta Gitlin accompany every plot development, and the action takes place against Lee Bauer’s simple (two trees and a mini-house facade) set design.

Marshall is a standout. He looks goofy in a costume resembling a cross between Raggedy Andy and Jethro Clampett--and even more of his mischievous, comedic spark is just what is needed to keep all the niceness from becoming too bland.

* “Hansel and Gretel,” Theatre West, 3333 W. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, Saturdays, 1 p.m. Indefinitely. $8. (818) 761-2203.

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On the Air: Uncle Ruthie Buell celebrates Cinco de Mayo with a festive bilingual edition of her long-running children’s radio show “Halfway Down the Stairs” Sunday on KPFK-FM (90.7), featuring storytelling and music in Spanish and English and recording artist Suni Paz as her special guest.

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* “Halfway Down the Stairs,” Sunday, 8:30 a.m.; KPFK-FM (90.7).

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The Art of Smart: Music, theater, dance, the visual arts--first to get the budget ax in recent years--are now increasingly seen as valuable for future success as other educational basics.

How best to involve children in the arts is a challenge, however. Teachers, PTA members and school administrators may find ideas at the Music Center Education Division’s free annual “Showcase of Artists.” The fair at the Music Center on May 11 features performances and workshop demos by more than 100 artists and groups.

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The Music Center Education Division’s programs include school performances, workshops, teacher training, community festivals and awards programs.

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* “Showcase of Artists,” Music Center Plaza and Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., May 11, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Free; advance registration required. (213) 977-9555.


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