'Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella': Theater Review
The touring company of the 2013 Broadway production fully delivers on playwright Douglas Carter Beane's snarky but charming update.
Since its television debut in 1957, starring Julie Andrews, a definitive Broadway production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s beloved musical Cinderella has eluded fans, leaving them feeling like Prince Charming at 12:01 a.m. Sure, there’s the big-screen Disney adaptation currently captivating movie critics and ticket-buyers, but it’s a nonmusical, more tradition-bound version, charming though without lyricism. Well fear not, fair singing prince. With playwright Douglas Carter Beane’s clever reimagining of the classic fairy tale offering updated humor and new characters, the glass slipper fits, and all is right with the world.
A multiple-Tony nominee, Beane (Sister Act, The Nance) originally passed when producer Robyn Goodman approached him about adapting the TV musical for Broadway. The first act always ends with Cinderella losing her slipper, and the second act offers only skimpy plotting as the prince searches for the slipper’s owner. It wasn’t until Beane revisited French author Charles Perrault’s original interpretation of the story that he discovered one of the sisters actually wasn’t so bad and that Cinderella protected the prince from the savagery of the court. This gave the playwright an avenue in, which included a second romantic couple in stepsister Gabrielle (Kaitlyn Davidson) and her beloved Jean-Michel, David Andino’s amiably nerdy crusader for social justice, who is “angry for all the right reasons.”
Dispensing with the prince’s parents, Beane introduced a wicked regent, Sebastian (Branch Woodman), who attempts to shield Prince Topher (Andy Huntington Jones) from the economic strain on his subjects. While it may sound a bit agitprop, it’s all treated as background plotting to provide a sound foundation for what the audience came for in the first place — a little bit of fairy-tale magic and a whole bunch of vibrant Rodgers + Hammerstein tunes.
Taking over for Tony nominee Laura Osnes in the role of Ella, Paige Faure has a history with the production but got pregnant and had to drop out before opening night in 2013. After assuming the part a year later and now heading the touring company, she is a natural fit, balancing just the right amount of sweetness with a burnishing dose of irony. A soprano with a clear and crisp delivery, she explores the recesses of Ella’s imagination to shelter herself against a cruel world in her signature song, “In My Own Little Corner.” Her chemistry with Jones as Prince Topher treads a poignant but never saccharine edge between innocence and burgeoning romance, captured touchingly in their duet, “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful.”
Jones, who understudied the part of Topher on Broadway, has a tentative quality combined with a boyish optimism that makes him a perfect fit for the role. In Beane’s interpretation, Topher is a Prince capable of slaying dragons and dispensing with ogres, yet he feels unfulfilled. His signature song, “Me, Who Am I?” (deleted from R+H’s Me and Juliet), lyrically captures an adolescent wondering about his place in the world. And while he falls for Ella, he does so less for her physical charms than for her charitable spirit and unalloyed kindness, echoing the Kenneth Branagh movie.
Yet, while Ella is smitten with Topher, in this updated version, she's not the type to sit on her hands pining for some prince. And don’t expect her to wallow in self-pity while she slaves away at the hand of her less-wicked-than-obnoxious stepmother, played by Fran Drescher.
Having made her Broadway debut in the play a year ago, Drescher still seems to be finding her way into the part of a neurotic single mother of a certain age, bent on marrying one of her daughters to royalty as she dangles precariously between “lower-upper class and upper-middle class.” Drescher battles a Queens accent the way other actors might battle a cold, but a year into the part, you would think she might have gotten over it by now. Despite (or because of) her trademark nasal delivery, she got a rousing ovation opening night, and fans clearly enjoyed seeing the former sitcom star in the flesh.
Read more 'Cinderella': Film Review
Kecia Lewis benevolently embodies the role of Marie, the forest beggar woman who turns out to be Ella’s fairy godmother. She brings operatic timbre to her solo, “There’s Music in You,” a song featured in the 1997 TV version starring Whitney Houston but that originated in the 1953 movie Main Street to Broadway, in which Rodgers + Hammerstein appeared.
While the songs of Cinderella may not be the strongest in the Rodgers + Hammerstein canon, “Ten Minutes Ago,” “Impossible” and other aforementioned tunes glitter in Danny Troob’s orchestrations, while Anna Louizos’ scenic design layers in stunning storybook forests, cottages and a royal palace. Director Mark Brokaw makes the intimate moments ring with emotional veracity and handles ensemble scenes with rhythm and finesse, though the company seemed a bit confined by the dimensions of the Ahmanson Theatre stage on opening night.
Of the play’s nine Tony nominations, best choreography, combining generic folk steps with rudimentary ballet steps, wasn’t among them. The sole win among the nine nods was for William Ivey Long's costumes, which are miraculous, especially when the fairy godmother turns Ella’s rags into a ballgown. The transformation occurs onstage and is so convincing it might leave some wondering whether or not to believe their eyes — or if there really is such a thing as magic.
Cast: Paige Faure, Andy Huntington Jones, Fran Drescher, David Andino, Kaitlyn Davidson, Aymee Garcia, Antoine L. Smith, Branch Woodman, Kecia Lewis, Adrian Arrieta, Adrian Baidoo, Summer Broyhill, Audrey Cardwell, Jennifer Evans, Alexandra Frohlinger, Richard Gatta, Jordana Grolnick, Eric Anthony Johnson, Danielle Jordan, Ben Lanham, Sean Seymour, Blakely Slaybaugh, Lauren Sprauge, Paige Williams, Thad Turner Wilson, John Yi, Alexandra Zorn
Director: Mark Brokaw
Book: Douglas Carter Beane, Oscar Hammerstein II
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Choreography: Josh Rhodes
Set designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Presented by Robyn Goodman, Jill Furman, Stephen Kocis, Edward Walson, Venetian Glass Productions, The Araca Group, Caiola Productions, Roy Furman, Peter May, Sanford Robertson, James Spry, Eric Schmidt, Blanket Fort Productions