Will Bartlett’s one-hour musical adaptation of Rumplestiltskin has run continuously off-Broadway since 1985 with good reason. It does a nice job of distilling a long and complex children’s classic with a warped message into an entertaining and concise plot with a healthy moral. And this summer, lucky little Naptowners need travel only as far as West Street to see it.
The traditional Rumplestiltskin tale is creepy. Because of her father’s drunken boasting, a peasant girl is locked in a tower and ordered by a greedy king, upon penalty of death, to spin straw into gold — not just once but thrice. To make matters worse, deception is her magic ticket to a royal wedding with the despot, financed by her child’s life. There’s more than one reason they’re called Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
In Bartlett’s updated version, though, victimhood becomes just rewards when the Miller’s Daughter (the fetching Amy Kellett) is herself the braggart. The romantic interest, the immature King Henry (Judson Davis), falls in love at first sight, with no ulterior motives, and grows a backbone as a result of the ensuing ordeal. It is his mother, the wicked Queen (Rena Cherry Brown), who orders the gold. And Rumplestiltskin (Brett Warner Hurt) demands her first-born not out of selfishness but to spare the child from the queen’s plan to exploit her supposed gold-spinning talent.
The audience of mostly single-digit midgets at the show I attended was totally invested in the story. But the script is so packed with hyperbole that it transcends caricatures to entertain the adults as well. The Queen is a particular crowd favorite with lines like, “I think you’re very sick and I like you.” She has such a knack for speaking the inappropriate that even the children laugh. Once she has learned her lesson, even the youngest at the post-show meet-and-greet acknowledged with mild trepidation that she was just, “a little bit angry for a while.”
The star of the show and most popular character by far is Rumple. She has an infectious energy, outsized gestures and an impish sense of humor that kids learn to love even before the show has begun. Because this is interactive theater, she breaks down their learned reserve with a five-minute warm-up of questions: “Can you say my name — louder?” and verb tense jokes — “What was tomorrow?” — to get them thinking and reacting. She also speaks in couplets throughout, a clever nod to tradition that gets a modern reaction when the testy queen snipes, “Why do you talk that way?”
There’s lots of physical humor and fart jokes for the kids amid sophisticated psychological gems like the king’s observation that, “I’ve never been kissed before. Mother kissed me once, but we don’t talk about it.”
The cast is solid gold and willing to emote over-the-top, as illustrated by Kellett’s bewitched face and Davis’ swoon. Each plot development is summarized in brief musical gems with titles like “Gold Is All We Ever Really Want.” The staging is creative and energetic, the set minimalist but effective with two painted curtain backdrops, and the moral timeless: love one another for who we are, and not what we bring to the table.
What’s not to like? I hope Bay Theatre will make children’s theater their standard summer stock.
Director: Jim Chance. Accompanist: Eun Nichols. Set designer: Pam Smith. Costumes: Janet Luby. Lights: Steven Strawn. Sound: Tommy Rinder and Billy Smith.
Playing thru Aug. 14 at 5pm Sa; 2pm Su at West Garrett Building, 275 West St., Annapolis. $15 w/discounts: 410-268-1333; www.baytheatre.org.