'Cinderella': Theater Review

Johan Persson
Ashley Shaw and the cast of 'Cinderella'
Bourne Again.
3/10/2019

Matthew Bourne sets the classic fairytale amid London's blitzkrieg, straddling the worlds of theater and ballet with his customary verve in a production that still feels fresh 20 years later.

Matthew Bourne's Cinderella debuted in 1997 amid high expectations, coming two years after the dance iconoclast's groundbreaking all-male production of Swan Lake, an adaptation that subverted assumptions while remaining true to the spirit of the Tchaikovsky-Petipas classic. With Cinderella, he didn't quite top himself but at least lived up to the anticipation. Audiences wanted something different and they got it, with Bourne setting his dance in wartime London during the blitzkrieg. That may seem an unsuitable time and place, but it was the music that dictated it, specifically Sergei Prokofiev's evocative score to Frederick Ashton's classic production of Cinderella, composed in 1945. The preponderance of minor keys puts the audience on notice, saying if this is a fairytale, there must be demons. The result is a darkly romantic fantasy that straddles the worlds of theater and ballet in ways only Bourne can.

When we first meet Cinderella (Ashley Shaw), she is tending to her infirm father (Alan Vincent), who warms himself in his wheelchair by the hearth. Filling the room behind them is their family of two stepsisters and three stepbrothers, the lustful Dan Wright among them, who won’t keep his hands to himself. As they pour over invites to a party at the city's swankiest club, the Cafe de Paris, Cinderella is denied her invitation by her stepmother Sybil (Madelaine Brennan), a vainglorious middle-aged wretch, comically venting at her charmed stepdaughter.

With the appearance of Cinderella's guardian Angel (Liam Mower) comes Harry (Andrew Monaghan), an RAF pilot with whom she falls instantly in love. A party follows, with drinking and cavorting and a jitterbug dance, another example of Bourne at his best, bridging the distance between musical theater and ballet.

As the Angel, Mower outshines his peers, executing his solos with precise and expressive articulation suggesting his character’s authority. This tall, lean dancer, clad in a white satin tuxedo, got his start in the original 2005 cast of Billy Elliot: The Musical, joining Bourne's New Adventures company in 2011. His solo toward the end of the first act tells the audience that this is his show. And as the curtain comes up on the second act, he seals the deal, dancing amid the wreckage of the Cafe de Paris, a shimmering refuge for Mayfair socialites that was bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1941. Its walls are demolished, and the dance floor scattered with bodies and overturned tables and chairs.

But then, before our eyes, the set rights itself, spinning back the clock and restoring it to the way it was; a bow, of sorts, by scenic designer Lez Brotherston for his Olivier Award-winning work, augmented by Neil Austin's searchlights raking the sky and splashing color against a monochromatic palette that evokes the silver screen. No less impactful is Paul Groothuis' surround sound, which puts the audience at ground zero when the bombs begin to drop, cushioned only by the pre-recorded 82-piece orchestra playing Prokofiev's lush score.

Although he didn't begin dancing until age 22, Bourne is a natural storyteller, fully utilizing mimetic dance which, over the past 100 years, has been largely scrubbed from the medium. He choreographs to the note, organizing his moves to fit every beat, time change and tonal apercu, his work occasionally veering toward the tidy.

The ballroom scene features more outstanding ensemble choreography, combining dance moves from the era with ballet steps. But the second pas de deux between Cinderella and Harry, while suitably romantic and easy on the eye, makes clear that Bourne was not particularly interested in choreographing for two at that point in his career. Perhaps because a decade of experience in musical theater made him more comfortable dancemaking for the ensemble. Whatever the reason, the duets between Cinderella and Harry ought to be achingly gorgeous, the most memorable moments of the night. But as adeptly executed, deeply romantic and charming as they are, these key scenes merely satisfy when they ought to stupefy.

Shaw was seen two years ago in Bourne’s more recent, and superior, production, The Red Shoes, in which she danced the ill-fated Vicky Page. A company regular, by now she makes Bourne's complicated and occasionally antic dance steps look like her own. Nearly as important as her grace and style is her shimmering presence, a quality that makes her a beacon amid the often-crowded stage.

Monaghan is her subordinate, lifting and carrying through much of the dance, brooding and yearning throughout. As the evil stepmother, Sybil, a sinfully delicious role inspired by Joan Crawford, Brennan is lustily athletic and neither shy with the bottle nor with the soldiers at the dancehall.

From the beginning, productions of Cinderella have presented a third-act quandary for storytellers, one with which Bourne, too, struggles. Once Cinderella and her prince are parted at the ball, there's nothing left but for him to go find her. The audience waits for the inevitable conclusion, a full act ahead of the material. In Bourne's case, Harry wanders into a nest of prostitutes in the Underground and gets beat up on a bridge in a scene inspired by the classic wartime film, Waterloo Bridge. But dramatically it feels like filler.

The final sequence at Paddington Station owes some debt to David Lean's classic, Brief Encounter. Gene Kelly and other cinematic influences can be seen in most of Bourne's works, but his true genius lies in marrying the visual splendor and scope of cinema with crowd-pleasing choreography to arrive at his own form of ballet. By most measures, such a collision ought to turn up a pandering mess designed to please and not provoke. But that isn't the case. Bourne's ballet is an accessible amalgam that challenges and pleases the senses and will sweep even dance aesthetes off their feet.

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Stephanie Billers, Madelaine Brennan, Cordelia Braithwaite, Ben Brown, João Carolino, Reece Causton, Jackson Fisch, Paris Fitzpatrick, Sophia Hurdley, Jack Jones, Daisy May Kemp, Kate Lyons, Anjali Mehra, Andrew Monaghan, Liam Mower, Stephen Murray, Matthew Petty, Edwin Ray, Danny Reubens, Mark Samaras, Ashley Shaw, Catrin Thomas, Alan Vincent, Joe Walkling, Katie Webb, Seren Williams, Dan Wright
Director-choreographer: Matthew Bourne
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Set & costume designer: Lez Brotherston
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Sound designer: Paul Groothuis
Projection designer: Duncan McLean
Presented by Matthew Bourne/New Adventures, Center Theatre Group