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BWW Album Review: CINDERELLA Goes Beyond Just Charming for the Modern Age

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Andrew Lloyd Webber's take on the classic fairytale is now playing at the Gillian Lynne Theatre.

Cinderella

Let's get this out of the way to begin with: I'm not always the biggest fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber. In particular, I'd say his more recent scores, such as the updated The Wizard of Oz and School of Rock, have ranged from mediocre to utterly disappointing. That's why I'm pleasantly surprised to be able to say that the score for Webber's new version of Cinderella is actually quite fun, sometimes lovely, and consistently catchy.

It's definitely a Cinderella that fits more alongside Rent, Spring Awakening, Heathers, and Six more than a delicate, Disney-fied fairytale, with an approach that's firmly tongue-in-cheek satire. The key to Webber's musicals, it seems, is his collaborators, and in lyricist David Zippel and bookwriter Emerald Fennell, he's found two people who lend a smart, wry, and satirical edge to the show as a whole. Zippel gets to play around with the deliberately-anachronistic, conversational lyric style that '90s kids will remember from Hercules, while Fennell's hand is evident in the quick-witted women and the surprisingly sharp satire of beauty standards (across genders, not just for women).

The opening number, the punnily-titled "Buns 'N' Roses," has a touch of Webber's '80s heyday, but also establishes the show's sense of humor right away. Imagine if Chess's "Merano" was crossed with Beauty and the Beast's "Belle" and sung by a bunch of self-absorbed, arrogant pretty people, and you get the idea.

Carrie Hope Fletcher makes her entrance with "Bad Cinderella," which is a catchy but occasionally questionable character theme song. Fletcher is a powerhouse, and the song will absolutely get stuck in your head - if not here, then from one of the many, many times it's reprised. Webber does love a good reprise! As an "I Want" song goes, though, it's not particularly effective. It's more of an "I Am" song, telling us about Cinderella's proud-troublemaker status but not giving us much about what she actually wants.

It's also the first of a few moments in the show where the melodies and chord progressions unmistakably evoke other, familiar tunes. The main "Bad Cinderella" melody strongly evokes Rodgers and Hammerstein's "In My Own Little Corner," while the main "waltz" motif (showing up in several songs) bears more than a passing resemblance to the "Learn to Do It" waltz melody from Anastasia.

Fletcher is well matched with Ivano Turco as Sebastian, the reluctant Prince who is stuck with the throne after his older, more popular brother disappears. The show smartly fixes one of the biggest problems for any modern Cinderella adaptation - the insta-love between the Prince and Cinderella - by making these versions of the characters longtime friends. There's a teasing, easy feel to their banter, starting with "So Long," their (also much-reprised) song early on in the show. It's easy to believe in their friendship and their simultaneous secret crushes on each other, despite the fact that the lyrics of their songs vacillate quite a bit between specific and familiar sentiments.

The score's ballads are as soaring and exquisite as you might hope, giving both Fletcher and Turco a chance to shine. Turco's "Only You, Lonely You" is destined to become a musical theatre romantic standard, while pretty much all of Fletcher's solos - "Unbreakable," "I Know I Have a Heart," and "Far Too Late" - are the kinds of belting ballads actresses both dream about and dread. If there's a complaint to be had, it's that her musical arc is a tad repetitive; most of those songs repeat the same or similar emotions and character beats, which dulls the effect. Similarly, the constant reprising is, of course, a hallmark of a Webber score - you'll either love it or you'll get tired of it fast.

On the comedy side, there's plenty to go around. Helen George, as the hedonistic Queen, and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, as the Stepmother, have a deliciously wicked duet, "I Know You," that is pretty much carte blanche for divas to ham it up. As the Godmother, Gloria Onitiri gets to lead the surprisingly dark, wickedly satirical "Beauty Has a Price," which serves as the show's thematic centerpiece in many ways. Alas, the scene-stealing Onitiri gets very little other material with which to shine, which is truly a shame.

The second half of the album does suffer from fairytale syndrome, aka the need to stretch out the story when its natural "act break" actually happens with very little plot left (here, the ball opens Act 2, and the rest is fallout before the wedding). There's definitely a bit of filler, although the creative team works hard to fill the space with more content for Cinderella's stepfamily. Fortunately, things pick up again by the end. Guest vocalist Adam Lambert appears as the rockstar Prince Charming, telling the tale of where he's been with "The Vanquishing of the Three-Headed Sea Witch." It's utterly ridiculous but also ridiculously fun, and it's a shame that the song has not survived to the live version of the show.

Things wrap up, in the end, in rom-com fashion, with everyone learning a few lessons about being true to yourself and following your heart. It's a heartfelt message wrapped in loads of snark and camp, but somehow, it all results in an album that's a surprisingly engaging, rollicking ride that has just enough of its own spin on the classic story to make it stand out.

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