Full disclosure: My 12-year-old daughter’s early childhood was, largely, Brothers Grimm-free. We had the vague sense that those German siblings delivered tales that were, well, grim. Too bad for us. Watching The Brementown Musicians, Seattle Children's Theatre's fresh world premiere—adapted from the Grimm Brothers’ story—I was reminded of something the Grimm boys understood very well: Kids want their art real.
By “real” I don’t mean the sort of reality you can tune into from your TV. I mean art that takes on hard-edged topics, like bullying, aging, hard work, and dreams deferred, delivered by serious artists, such as the Grimms and the stellar team Linda Hartzell assembled to create this charming, thoughtful piece.
The Brementown Musicians is the story of aging farm animals who decide to follow a dream rather than succumb to being “put out to pasture”—or worse. Donny the donkey (Don Darryl Rivera), Nell the cat (Jayne Muirhead), and Minnie the dog (Julie Briskman) decide to form a band and follow their love of music away from the farm toward Bremen, to play the legendary “Schwingenhaus” there.
Before the newly formed ensemble can land a gig, though, we learn that the self-appointed mayor of Bremen, Fritz (Caety Sagoian), and her brother, Karl the Crusher (Hugh Hastings), have banished music. We see their wagon full of confiscated instruments when they arrive at das Schwingenhaus to exile Rusty (Auston James), an operatic, violin-playing rooster, from the stage he loves.
Fritz and Karl are seizing not only violins and tambourines; they’ve been stealing treasure from the people of Bremen and storing it in one of the appropriated violin cases. When Karl tries to add Rusty’s violin to the confiscated collection, in the confusion, Rusty grabs the treasure-filled case.
As the tale unfolds, Rusty joins Donny, Nell, and Minnie. We learn why Fritz is such a bully (big surprise: she was bullied). We are reminded that it’s never too late to answer the question, “What will I be when I grow up?” We watch each individual animal/musician maintain his or her individuality while collaborating to bring music back to Bremen. And, most importantly, we learn what is truly valuable (spoiler alert: not the stolen treasure).
The Brementown Musicians is the 103rd world premiere SCT has mounted in its 35-year history. It was written by Allison Gregory, with music by Hummie Mann (the team that brought Peter and the Wolf to SCT in the 2005-06 season). You might think that managing all the moving parts of a world premiere would result in some unevenness—and owing to the magnitude of the undertaking, you would probably be willing to forgive any shortcomings.
No need! SCT makes producing a world premiere look easy peasy (which I’m fairly certain it is not). The adaptation keeps the main themes of the original fairy tale intact and updates the delivery with snappy dialogue, sophisticated puns and funny wordplay, original music, and marvelous sets and costumes.
The music is a melting pot of variations on klezmer, jazz, opera and Broadway musical. In the program notes, artistic director Linda Hartzell writes that the “catchy music…will have you singing the songs long after you leave...” which was an accurate prediction for our theatre-going party of two.
The cast of SCT veterans work wonderfully as an ensemble and each one is strong individually, like their animal counterparts. The actors are masterful at integrating their respective animal mannerisms so they are obvious but don’t distract from the story.
Edie Whitsett, set designer, and Deb Trout, costume designer, took the German setting and added fantastical elements, borrowing from German historical eras as well as culture (Germanic and otherwise: Donny the donkey’s mane looks reminiscent of a rock & roll Mohawk) to create a vibrant stage setting.
SCT artistic director Linda Hartzell says “…The Brementown Musicians is, at its core, a story of belonging….” It is a fable whose moral suggests that friendship, creativity and community can soften life’s hard edges. Basically, we’re all in this together.
The Brementown Musicians opened April 8 and plays at Seattle Children's Theatre through May 16. It's recommended for ages 5 and older. Tickets are $15-$34.