A fresh take on the fairy tale, and a charming show for the season!

By: Dec. 09, 2023

Sometimes it’s simply comforting to visit an old friend during the holidays, and indeed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA at Theatre Under the Stars feels like one.  It was a show originally written for television in 1957 as a vehicle for Julie Andrews.  The same script was remade for TV with Lesley Anne Warren in 1965, and notably once again broadcast with Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston in 1997 with a more diverse cast and some added songs.   It’s a story as old as time, and probably the best-loved fairy tale with many cultures having variations on it going back to the Greeks and ancient China.  But most people identify it either with the Italian or French folk story or the German Grimm Fairy Tale version. And of course, there is always that Disney animated adaptation from 1950.   This TUTS staging now running at the Hobby Center utilizes the “Enchanted Edition” of the script by Tom Briggs which is closest to the Whitney Houston-produced 1997 television version. The Houston-based theater company has created an amazingly charming and gorgeous-looking production of this classic tale just in time for the season.   

Brianna Kaleen makes a picture-perfect CINDERELLA as the titular fairy tale princess.  She has a clear singing voice that spins out the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs as if she were a perfectly constructed bell. She was made for this role. She precisely attacks each note, and her acting is warm and believable.  We love her from the onset, and her transformation from peasant girl to princess is stunning.  TUTS lucked out with her.  Playing her Prince is Jason Schmidt.  He tries for a more crooner-style song delivery (think Michael Buble in a crown and tights), and essentially hits it.  His lower register sometimes is not as strong as the upper, but his acting cements his role as the “perfect respectful guy” to win over Cinderella. He is so loveable and ironically… simply charming.   

One of the highlights of the evening is the interpretation of the Godmother by Soara-Joye Ross (hoping that the last name indicates a relation to Diana).  She comes out in an art deco-inspired gold, high-collared cape, and glittering gown (far from schmatta).   Her vocal performance is a master class in delivering these old much-loved musical songs with a sense of soul and freshness.  And somehow she manages to do this while suspended fifteen feet above the stage and swinging precariously above the rest of the cast.  She is magic whenever she appears, and the production uses her strategically to create a sense of wonder.  

CINDERELLA benefits significantly from the support of several cast members who know how to play musical comedy broadly and with gusto.  One of Houston’s greatest comedic musical actors Mark Ivy appears as the Prince’s right-hand man.  He always carries off a song with finesse and strength, and he lands every joke with the precision of a master thespian.  Seeing a “local boy” lead the pack in a show at the Hobby Center is terrific. The trio of evil relatives - the step-monster and sisters are played with aplomb and fervor by Courtney Markowitz, Gemini Quintos, and Sarah Sachi.  All three have robust singing voices and whipsmart quip timing. Of note as well are Brian Mathis and Melrose Johnson who make an adorable couple as the King and Queen.  The supporting cast is a delight throughout.      

I may be getting soft and sentimental in my old age, but this straightforward and reverent re-telling of CINDERELLA won me over.  TUTS has added subtle hints of diversity and inclusion everywhere in the fabric. An excellent teen chorus supports the show; they are of all races,  abilities, and physical stature.   The one thing uniting them is a sense of wonder and joy of being onstage at the Prince’s ball, a dream come true for anyone.  What I admire most about TUTS is their willingness to cast local Houston talent of all levels, and allowing them to work on a show with musical theater professionals from around the country.  They are the soul of Houston theater in many ways, and it is lovely to see them honor that legacy with their holiday show.  So many proud parents were in the audience, and seeing their children create such an enthralling fairy tale was a thrill.  

Technically there’s much to love here, and TUTS makes the most of a fairy tale setting to dazzle us with sets and costumes. Colleen Grady’s costumes play all the way to the back row with bold colors and sparkles everywhere you can imagine. Renee Brode’s lights are fanciful and fun, and create a sense of space for the narrative. Eboni Bell Darcy directs the show with an eye for masses moving in organized chaos, and a visual sense of humor to support the actors.  She understands that this CINDERELLA is about the power within the princess herself, and she assuredly conveys that throughout.  This is the type of show TUTS does better than anybody else, and they have the right woman at the helm.  

I can’t imagine that even the Grinchiest of Grinches will walk out of CINDERELLA without a wide, warm smile.  This is the holiday magic that only live theater can offer, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see TUTS choose a show that has the spirit of the season without being an obvious play on them.  Kids and adults alike will find something to love here.  You can’t go wrong with a classic fairy tale, a gorgeous Rodgers and Hammerstein set of songs, a diverse cast loaded with comedic talent, and a technical presentation that matches everything.  CINDERELLA won me over, and I suspect it will do the same for you.  Sometimes old friends are indeed the best.  

CINDERELLA presented by TUTS runs at the Hobby Center through December 24th.  The TUTS Box Office can be reached by phone at: 713.558.8887, or tickets can be purchased online through the link below.  The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with a fifteen-minute intermission.  

Photo provided by Melissa Taylor.  Pictured are Brianna Kaleem as Cinderella and Soara-Joye Ross as the Godmother.