BWW Review: HOUSTON BALLET Resets CINDERELLA at Wortham Theater Center
So how would you like a CINDERELLA where Cinderella is a crop-haired tomboy, Prince Charming is a self-absorbed boor, there is no pumpkin coach, nor mice to pull it, no Fairy Godmother, no beautiful ball gown, and Cinderella turns down the prince?
Well, if any this appeals to you, you can get all that and more in Stanton Welch's CINDERELLA at the Wortham, courtesy of the Houston Ballet.
In this retelling of the beloved fairy tale, pretty much everything is thrown out the window for a darker, edgier story of an independent woman fighting against her circumstances for a chance at a better life.
Cinderella (Melody Mennite) Is still being mistreated by her stepmother (Oliver Halkowich) and her stepsisters, Grizabella (Hayden Stark) and Florinda (Derek Dunn), but she is much more rebellious, balking at her chores and getting back in subtle ways. It's clear from the beginning that she isn't taking this nonsense lying down. Her mother (Jessica Collado) has died, but her ghostly presence remains a staunch ally, in the person of her portrait over the fireplace, which comes to life periodically.
In this version, Cinderella's father (Christopher Coomer) is still alive, but rendered ineffectual by his Medusa of a wife and the solace of drink. There is one other presence in the household, a character named, for no discernable reason, "Buttons" (Christopher Gray), a chimney sweep who seems to be around for support and comic relief. I don't know where he came from.
All this is established in Act I, Scene I, the breakfast room "Chez Cinderella", according to the program.
Preparations for the ball commence, with a troop of dressmakers and a dance instructor in attendance. There are particularly ugly dresses for the stepmother and her daughters, but none, of course, for Cinderella, although she outshines them all in her dancing with the master.
Not to worry, she has her mother's wedding dress, a little worse for wear, but still.... Egged on by their mother, the sisters soon make short work of the dress, throwing it into the fireplace. Cinderella retrieves it and puts it on, but it is hopeless, and she runs away, her hopes of attending the ball destroyed.
Scene II, a street. Otherwise known as a set change, we find Cinderella encountering a gaily-dressed group of party-goers, on their way to the ball.
Scene III, a graveyard - this is where it gets good. Throwing herself on her mother's grave, Cinderella laments her fate, until the spirit of her mother appears and takes things in hand, summoning her own workers, a coterie of zombies, eager to do her bidding. In no time at all they whip up a dress, but instead of an opulent ball gown, it is a somewhat abbreviated shift, with an elaborate overdress. A rather iffy headpiece completes the ensemble. Anyway, Cinderella seems happy with it, and that's what counts, really, I guess.
The denizens of the graveyard, ecstatic with their handiwork, celebrate in a frenzied dance, and then transport Cinderella to the ball, presto, sans coach.
INTERMISSION. I found the first act somewhat overlong, particularly in the graveyard scene. A smattering of children in the audience were beginning to fade, and frankly, so was I.
ACT III, the Royal Pavilion. At last, we get to the ball, already in progress. The stepmother and her daughters arrive, all agog at the prospect of the prince choosing a bride.
The prince's attendants, gorgeously arrayed, enter, and are made much of by the ladies. They are followed by the Prince (Charles-Louis Yoshiyama), dazzlingly handsome and charming.
There is a hush in the room as Cinderella makes her traditional entrance, alone, on the grand staircase, backed by a rather garish peacock drop. The prince is enchanted, and, naturally, asks her to dance. She accepts, but soon begins to see that under his looks and charm, the prince is vain and self-centered. She finds his secretary (?), Dandini (Ian Casady), much more to her liking. Managing to be alone, they soon begin to fall in love. By the simple expedient of removing his glasses, Cinderella discovers that Dandini is everything the prince is not, and handsome to boot.
Midnight approaches, and Cinderella tries to leave, but the prince insists that she stay, and the spell is broken. The clock strikes 12, and she escapes, leaving behind a shoe.
INTERMISSION, again. By now the children are asleep. They do not return for ACT III.
I did. Frantic search for the wearer of the shoe, the stepmother dissembles, Cinderella's secret is discovered. The prince proposes, and Cinderella turns him down in favor of Dandini, and they begin a life of happily ever after, free from servitude and bound by love, again, quoting the program.
If I seem to be throwing shade here, I suppose I am. CINDERELLA is not my favorite ballet to begin with, and I thought a retelling would be a change. I got more than I bargained for.
Also, fresh off the splendor and magic of Welch's NUTCRACKER, I was primed for a much more lavish production, which may not be fair.
The dancing, as always, was first-rate, particularly from Yoshiyama, whose portrayal of the prince was exactly right, especially in his moments of vanity. His expression was everything it should be.
The stepmother and her daughters, traditionally danced by men, were a delight. Usually presented as pantomime dames, with fright wigs and drag-queen makeup, Welch's trio were refreshing in their believable appearances and performances. For me, they blended just the right amount of titillation with strong dancing and a comic touch.
So there it is. Those with a traditional bent may not appreciate the different take on the story, but if you're up for a darker twist, this may be for you. I wouldn't take the kids, though.
Stanton Welch's CINDERELLA
March 2-12, 2017
THE HOUSTON BALLET
Wortham Theater Center, Brown Theater, 501 Texas. For tickets and information, visit houstonballet.org.
PHOTO CREDIT: Amitava Sarkar