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Hansel and Gretel in Beautiful Burbank

The Falcon Theatre's revamping of a classic fairy tale emphasizes family and stars the still-wacky Jo Anne Worley.

March 19, 2000|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

"Hansel and Gretel" has long been regarded as family fare. But seldom has there come along a version of the classic tale that's as much a family affair as the one opening at the Falcon Theatre on Saturday.

Updated, re-imagined and modernized to maximize the laughs, the new adaptation is the work of Lori Marshall, a playwright-author who happens to be the eldest of Falcon Theatre founder Garry Marshall's three children. Staged by Falcon associate director Kevin Larkin, it stars Jo Anne Worley in the pivotal role of the nanny/witch and features the voices of Penny Marshall, Garry Marshall and other surprise celebrity guests.

It's not all in the family, but it's close, and for good reason, given the family in question. "The only part that was written specifically with a person in mind was the part of Miz Moon [the voice-over narrator], who I thought should be played by my Aunt Penny," says Lori Marshall. "She has a great voice that I thought parents would recognize and kids would laugh at."

What's more, "Hansel and Gretel" was partly inspired by Lori Marshall's own experiences raising her 4-year-old twins, Lily and Charlotte. "I got the idea to adapt 'Hansel and Gretel' because my girls have recently made the discovery that it's cool to have a sibling," Marshall says. "They can play. They can fight. They can make up. But they will always have each other as an ally."

Even the non-Marshalls involved see "Hansel and Gretel" as a kind of "family" project. "The challenge of this piece was in doing a total revamping of a fairy tale," says Larkin, himself the father of two young sons, who has directed all four of the Falcon's previous children's plays, including Lori Marshall's adaptation of "Rapunzel" last summer. "It's about family, and that it's absolutely OK to be from a one-parent family."

But the Falcon children's show isn't only about the message. It's also about fun and top-drawer production values, which helps explain the casting of nearby Toluca Lake resident Worley.

"I tailored the part so Jo Anne gets to play three parts in one, and I think it really showcases her comic timing," Marshall says. "She is fearlessly funny and commits so much to every line with an attitude that is very kid-friendly."

And from Worley's point of view, it was an opportunity to put her versatility to good use. "I play three characters," the actress says. "Actually, I'm all the same person pretending to be these other characters, but the base is the witch. The witch, in this particular production, has to go through a change and become a good person. You can do that in life, you've got a chance.

"Plus, I live in the 'hood," she adds, "and I love doing my work and being able to go home immediately."

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While there's been a great deal of hand-wringing in recent years about the graying of the theater audience, there has been little action taken to counter this trend. Many organizations tour minimally produced dramatic shows to schools, but few theaters have an ongoing commitment to high quality children's programming as part of their main bill of fare.

But with a series of professionally crafted young audience shows, the 3-year-old Burbank venue has demonstrated a faith in, as well as a flair for, plays designed to help cultivate theatergoers of the future.

Typically, the Falcon's shows speak to issues facing today's families. "My goal with both ["Rapunzel" and "Hansel and Gretel"] was to write a show that both parents and kids could enjoy together," says Marshall. "So one of the similarities that you'll notice is that both plays use humor as well as modern-day references to reach people."

That's what makes Worley ideal for her role. "She's a comic doyenne," Larkin says. "She's the best team leader you could ask for."

Indeed, chatting with the irrepressible actress in her dressing room at the Falcon, it seems time has stood still. That same high-wattage smile, those huge round eyes and the fringy mop of dark bangs remain virtually unchanged since the "Laugh-In" days.

Ditto her leggy figure and impressive vocal range. Like many actresses, Worley declines to divulge her age. Unlike most, she truly is charmingly ageless.

Raised on a farm near Lowell, Ind., Worley comes from a "big family--five children, all loud." But it became clear at an early age that she wasn't going to be kept down on that farm for long. "It's a joke in my act but it's true: I was thrown out of the high school glee club for being too gleeful--for cutting up and making problems," she says.

Working at a truck stop during high school, Worley saved her money. Then, as soon as she graduated, she headed for Nyack, N.Y., to become an apprentice at a theater called the Pickwick Players.

From there, she obtained a drama scholarship to Midwestern University in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she stayed for a year and a half.

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