The first rule of storytelling is "know your audience." At intermission during Quintessence Theatre Group's production of Hansel and Gretel, the child screaming, "They're adding too much" indicates that writer Alexander Burns needs to do a little more market research.
Hansel and Gretel spans about seven pages in the Brothers Grimm original. Burns' adaptation stretches that to almost two hours with the addition of several other fairy tales. Though I get the intent - to hold the potentially wandering attention of the young audience - the inclusion of so many stories creates the very problem it's trying to solve.
Burns' writing may falter a bit, but his cast and production know how to entertain. Clare O'Malley brightens the stage with her wide-eyed innocence, convincing even a cynic when she bursts out, "The world is large, and it will take care of us because we're good."
As Hansel, Quintessence regular Sean Bradley offers a goofier, more physically comedic take. To Gretel's constant pleading that he "tell me a story," he enlivens his segues, one-upped only by their father (Alan Brincks), who with Faith Fossett (Stepmother, others) delivers a riveting telling of "The Fisherman and His Wife."
Burns featured original songs and lyrics by Philadelphia composer David Cope. These mostly uninventive contributions further lengthen the show and are salvaged only by Burns' and his sister Kaki Burns' choreography, which energizes the 12 numbers, including a cute, very funny riff on Silentó's dance-crazed "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)."
Throughout, John Burkland's lighting lends the staging a professionalism it doesn't always earn. With a long sheet and Burkland's design, the cast creates little moments of magic, particularly in the aforementioned "Fisherman" tale, with Burkland's turning the bare stage into a tempest.
A few untoward elements threaten to plunge the show into PG-13 territory. While Anita Holland gives a splendid, comically menacing portrayal of the Witch, her dance moves during the song "In My Kitchen" (not to mention Bradley's crotch grab) do more than merely suggest adult sexuality. Bob Stineman's staid performance as the Snowbird (which originally lures the two to the gingerbread house) looks pervy, with a wig and stoic demeanor that recalls the equally creepy Hawk from the Buck Rogers TV series.
These glitches and the runtime aside, Burns succeeds in entertaining by applying his company's mission of updating the classics. His choice to have the Witch feed Hansel sugary sweets while giving him an iPad for distraction provides clever contemporary commentary on an American lifestyle that regularly fattens kids for greater consumption.
Hansel and Gretel
Presented by Quintessence Theatre Group through Jan. 3 at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Ave.
Information: 215-987-4450, quintessencetheatre.org.