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Venus in Furs: The 'Glamour Pusses' rehearse for SSC's 'Gretel and Hansel.'

Pleased to Eat You

How Kate Hawley took a nasty little fairy tale and turned it into a musical that eats like a meal with SSC's 'Gretel and Hansel'

By Steve Palopoli

JACOB AND WILHELM Grimm certainly lived up to their name when they were churning out fairy tales a couple of centuries ago. But of all their stories, Hansel and Gretel is easily among the grimmest. Child abandonment, false imprisonment and conspiracy to commit cannibalism are among the catalog of crimes committed throughout the story by negligent husbands, malicious wives and, of course, witches.

It's also, in case you didn't remember, really, really short.

All of which might lead one to suspect that this particular story wouldn't exactly be the odds-on favorite if someone were looking to develop a "panto," the English pantomime style of play that traditionally features a cross-dressing man in the campy lead part, a heavy love story angle and a lot of showy, upbeat musical numbers.

But, as we all know, Shakespeare Santa Cruz doesn't always play the odds. Enter Santa Cruz playwright Kate Hawley, who had already adapted Cinderella into a hit panto for SSC and was looking for an encore. She knew right away Hansel and Gretel was a bad pick.

"Hansel and Gretel is a very small story, really," she says. "There's the husband, his wife, two children and the witch, and that's about it. With only those characters, there's no good B plot. There's no place to go."

And there was another big problem.

"Pantos usually have a romantic aspect to them, and I was stuck with siblings," she says. "So I was in dangerous territory even before I started."

And then, miraculously, Hawley stumbled upon the secret that has saved the ass of many a writer of pantos, musicals and other assorted theatrical productions--perhaps the only solution powerful enough to sweep away all her problems with one ingenious strategy:

"Add a lot of animals."

OK, so she already kind of knew what she was doing. For Cinderella, Hawley added Little Bo Peep and some sexy sheep. But for Gretel and Hansel, she brought out the big guns: cats. Mainly Tom Cat, a character who smooth talks the two children by day and then struts around with the shapely Glamour Pusses at night.

"He's a fun Gene Kelly-Fred Astaire character," says Hawley. "One of his big numbers is "Cattin' Around," and that's what he does every night while Gretel and Hansel are asleep. And then he finally meets a stray and falls in love. That's where the romance comes in."

The Animal Planet angle paid off in the production's debut last year when Mike Ryan in the Tom Cat role basically stole the show, along with the gender-bending Joseph Ribero in several of the "dame" comic roles.

"As soon as you have an actor like that, it's easy to write for him," says Hawley of Ryan, "and for Joseph, too, in the dame part."

Perhaps it worked so well because Hawley claims to have taken her animal instincts for the character from her own cat, Roger. This may seem like a typical cat owner boast, but fans of the now-disbanded local ska band Slow Gherkin may remember that lead singer James Rickman also sung the praises of a cat named Roger in a song of the same name. They are, in fact, the same cat--Rickman is Hawley's son.

"Roger's huge in our creative life," says Hawley by way of explanation. "He's that kind of cat."

Hawley also added some crows, which got an even bigger part this year when she was working on revisions based on what she thought worked and didn't work last year.

"That's the joy of doing this at SSC," she says. "If you do it two years in a row, you do learn from the first year, and the second year you can make some improvements. That's such a rare opportunity."

Considering that the play was a sold-out hit last year, a new, improved version promises to keep SSC's remarkable record with fairy tale successes intact.

But that doesn't exactly answer the basic question here: why did Hawley go through so much trouble to make Gretel and Hansel work, when she could have simply picked another fairy tale that wouldn't have given her such a headache?

The answer, incidentally, also provides some insight into the sly title switcheroo: "I was a younger sister," she says. "I have a lot of experience with sibling rivalry."

Gretel and Hansel, written by Kate Hawley with music by Craig Bohmler, runs Nov. 15 through Dec. 15 at the UCSC Theater Arts Mainstage. For ticket information, call 459.2159.

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From the November 13-20, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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