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Published October 30 2010

Review: ‘Hansel and Gretel’ meet the prairie

Those house-munching kids from the Brothers Grimm classic fairy tale definitely saved the best for last at Friday’s opening of the Fargo-Moorhead Opera’s production of “Hansel and Gretel.”

The fact that the FMO swapped the traditional lederhosen and Black Forest for “Little House on the Prairie” clothes and the Dakota prairie didn’t really stand out, which probably means it worked well.

Perhaps in part because of the purposefully sparse stage, the early parts of the show seemed to move somewhat slowly, but by the time the gingerbread house and the comedic witch hit the stage, the entertainment was running on all cylinders.

But a tougher audience than this reviewer seemed fine with the pace of the early sections.

“I think it’s good,” said Isabella Kirch, 10, during intermission.

Kirch particularly enjoyed Hansel and Gretel’s bickering and said she enjoyed it when Gretel called Hansel “dumb” and she called him “stinky.”

Kirch wasn’t alone.

“She’s my BFF,” Kirch said, referring to Erica Flores, 9, who was sitting next to her in the snack area.

“I like it!” said Flores, bouncing in her seat.

If the aim with “Hansel and Gretel” was to draw children into the opera, it seems to have worked. There was a good showing of the younger set, including at least a couple in costume.

But the real money in the show comes after intermission. Stella Zambalis returns in this production to perform with the FMO, as Hansel and Gretel’s mother and the witch (talk about your psychology-twisting dual roles). The witch is a blast. And, after the sparseness of the prairie stage, the colorful witch with her sugary house is a welcome change of pace.

Zambalis is a pro with voice to spare, which you expect from someone of her caliber. But it’s her comedic sense, her acting prowess and her willingness to forsake some of the classic operatic voice for effect – and good effect – that really took her performance up a notch.

And it is funny. At one point as she tried to fatten Hansel up for the kill, she calls for someone to bring “custard pies” and says “Hansel must be supersized.” At another point she crashes on her flying broom-bicycle vehicle, and her wobbly return to stage amused both children and adults.

Per usual, the FMO brought strong voices to the stage. Along with Zambalis, Jo Ellen Miller played Gretel well and Concordia’s Holly Wrensch (Hansel) and Peter Halverson (Hansel and Gretel’s father) were well up to their allotted roles.

One of the more pleasant surprises of the night was the very adept children’s chorus. Their voice was quite good, and they maintained character surprisingly well. When joined with the principal actors, they helped deliver the vocal high point of the evening in the closing number.

As for the update from the old country to the Dakota prairie, Dennis Fuhrman, a regular opera-goer, thought it worked. And he found that it “brought more humor to it.”

And 8½-year-old Ethan Peterson gave it a thumbs-up, too.

“It was really, really funny,” he said.

If you go

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734