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The beat drops. Strobe lights flash and five performers dance onto stage. In front, two men bounce side by side, rapping into their mics and introducing the evening. They are Jay and Will Grimmz – the Grimmz Brothers, that is – and they are taking you on a "Grimmz experience."
Children's Theatre of Charlotte's GRIMMZ Fairy Tales, a new production developed by Christopher Parks, Rahsheem Shabazz, and Ron Lee McGill, had its debut on February 21 in the Wells Fargo Playhouse at ImaginOn. Set up like a hip-hop concert, the show features the Grimmz brothers (Shabazz as Jay and McGill as Will), enthusiastic narrators who lead the audience through modern takes of four classic fairy tales using rhythm, rhyme, and dance.
Each fairy tale is placed in an urban environment with 21st century sensibilities. For example, the first rendition, "Snow White and the Seven Shawties," depicts Snow White's (Renee Welsh-Noel) experience with cyberbullying when she starts getting more attention on the "magic mirror" social media app than the jealous Diva Queen ("first name Diva, last name Queen," played by Octavia Hall). The "seven shawties" were seven wise elders, portrayed using detailed masks (costume design by Magda Guichard) that the cast manipulated, sometimes on their hands and even on the tops of their heads, to create the seven characters. CTC regularly has great costuming like this, as well as, when relevant, superb puppets which are used cleverly. This use of masks in "Snow White," though brief, was just another example of the caliber of design characteristic of the company.
The tales continue with Hansel and Gretel (who, this time, are abandoned children living on the street) and finally with the Grimmz brother's "Granny-winning" single, "Break, Cinderella, Break!" which portrays a B-girling Cinderella (Isabel Gonzalez) who, after her mother gets into some unidentified trouble, is sent to live with her dad and mean stepmom. There's no prince, but there is a happy ending when the dad (McGill) finally steps in and reprimands his wife, promising Cinderella that she will be treated nicely at home. "And MY daughter will be sleeping in a bed!" he says, as Cinderella beams. Wow dad, a whole bed? It's not like he's been trapped in a secluded castle with a Beast as a warden or under a sleeping spell for the past ten years or eaten by a wolf; the dad has been there the whole time! Seems a little a late in intervention, especially considering the fact that Cinderella's been sleeping on the cold basement floor for the past few weeks. Of course, princess that she is, Cinderella shows grace and forgives her father's negligence, allowing their relationship to be mended.
In between "Hansel and Gretel: Lost in the Hood" and "Break, Cinderella, Break!" was perhaps the highlight of the evening, "Down with Rapunzel," a goofy lesson about staying true to yourself and the importance of doing what makes you happy. The Grimmz's Rapunzel, played by Welsh-Noel, is a young, inner-city kid who sits out on her apartment balcony and, encouraged by her friends who stand below and give her a beat, sings her heart out. Unfortunately for Punzee (as her friend McGill calls her), her voice sounds less like a songbird and more like Grover the Muppet. Her mother, fearful that Rapunzel will be made fun of, forces Rapunzel to stay inside; however, in the end, McGill's character eventually convinces Rapunzel that she should continue to sing publicly because it is what she loves.
This section featured some of the funniest writing, including a verse by the mother (Hall) who, in reasoning with her daughter about why her daughter shouldn't sing publicly, sings softly, "Ever wonder why our cat wears a long hat?" and explains that people, when around Rapunzel, envy Rapunzel's grandmother, who is deaf. Welsh-Noel was particularly funny in this portrayal of Punzee and demonstrated a versatility characteristic of all of the show’s actors. Like Welsh-Noel, each actor effectively played multiple and contrasting roles throughout the show.
Shabazz and McGill as the stars and hosts of the evening were energetic and engaging, and their rapping was, with few exceptions, clear and cool. Kofi Osei Williams, Brooklyn-based drummer who has worked with the likes of Dianne Reeves and Erykah Badu, among others, was brought in as music director for this production. The music, the choreography by Shabazz, and the lively acting of the cast was entertaining and certainly captivating for the young audience (ages 6+) whose members sung along and danced in their seats throughout the performance.
GRIMMZ Fairy Tales will continue through Sunday, March 15. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.