BWW Review: Matthew Bourne's CINDERELLA is a Shoe-in Splendiferous Success at The Ahmanson Theatre
New Adventure's Production of the tale of Cinderella has never been more salacious or delicious. The dancing is superb, as well as the artistry involved in every facet of the production. With the updated scenario created, Cindy's world is smack dab in the middle of World War II. Directed and Choreographed by the incredible Sir Matthew Bourne, and loosely based on his parent's war stories, we are taken to London in the '40s, during the middle of air raids, bombings and destruction. The set design and wardrobe is all very drab in muted black and grey reflecting the tone of the environment.
Wickedly creative is the choreography, the sets, the costumes, lighting and sound, not to mention the score by Prokofiev. Cinderella Opus 87 is such a melodious wonderland for a choreographer and his artistic team to work with. There is such power, intensity and magic in this lively piece. In Sir Matthew Bourne's hands, and feet, it is a fabulous, imaginative display of artistry and brilliance.
There is a black-and-white film playing in a cinema in progress as the show opens, one of those documentary shorts by Pathe films that were widely shown around the world to keep citizens abreast of the latest wartime situation. People are seen wearing gas masks, buildings are burning, smoke and fire everywhere.
Underneath the film screen on stage we begin to see a tight group of people, dimly lit, who are holding gas masks and looking up at the sky while the disturbing sounds and smells surround them.
We switch to a family's home in London, and see a lone girl, very plain, conservative and studious in appearance, and then hear music that other participants in the house are listening to while she sweeps the floor. Some of the family lounges about, gossiping, smoking and bossing Cinderella around. One of the brothers, Malcolm stands by ready to measure a piece of clothing on a mannequin as the other two unruly overgrown brothers, run about acting quite silly, in their pajamas, and a bit lewd. Everyone is all a-buzz about the upcoming event at the Cafe De Paris.
Invites are handed out to everyone but Cinderella. Sybil, the Stepmother, ignores Cinderella's Dad, a retired general, in the wheelchair as if he were just a knick-knack on the shelf (played by Alan Vincent) as they all go upstairs to get ready to go, but Cinderella stays to comfort him, being the thoughtful, caring daughter she is.
After they leave, she dances with the mannequin, pretending she will be at the big celebration, pulling out a pair of silver sparkly slippers to use in her fantasy. The infantile-acting brothers are secretly watching her, and they rush out to dance with and tease her. One of them, Vernon, is particularly obsessed with her feet, kissing and fondling them, intermittently throughout, which gives a glimpse of this family's dysfunctional and selfish structure. They are most definitely portrayed as wealthy, privileged people, and as The Stepmother, Sybil, Madelaine Brennan is, through her movement and wardrobe, depicting perfectly a Joan Crawford-type stepmother. She is truly vibrant and exciting to watch and very full of vitality, with just the right touch of playfulness and humor added. She is impeccably dressed in high-fashioned glamorous '40s attire.
Cinderella is alone again, as the family readies for the celebration, and does a very clever, tender adagio with her father still sitting in the corner of the living room in the wheelchair, again fantasizing she will be going to Cafe de Paris. Played perfectly by Ashley Shaw, who last appeared in Matthew Bourne's "Red Shoes," her character and movements embody the classic interpretation of a "Cinderella." When there are no words uttered, and the story plays out with just music, movement and the entire surrounding environment, it is very magical, especially with a familiar tale such as this.
That is the brilliance of Matthew Bourne. His team of collaborators are worthy of his trust in them and it makes for a splendiferous melding of top-notch creators. The portrayal of this darkly romantic, love found and lost story during the strife of WWII while the world danced as if there was no tomorrow, seems most intense and poignant.
Liam Mower, as Cinderella's "Angel" rather than the usual "Fairy Godmother," is a heavenly vision who appears to her to orchestrate her dream, dancing brilliantly, with a commanding presence every moment he is on stage. His movements are very stylized, as are his lines.
As the family finishes readying themselves to attend the huge party at Cafe de Paris, carrying on with wild abandon, the two stepsisters, played by Sophia Hurdley and Anjali Mehra, and the three stepbrothers, Jackson Fisch, Dan Wright and Stephen Murray are giddy with excitement, and welcome in some soldiers, who join with them to dance quite the athletic jitterbug. Sybil, the stepmother, is pirouetting with one of her sons, Elliott, clothed in short pants, knee-high socks and a childish cap on his head, as they all dance a lively mazurka, the "shorty George" and other '40s-style fast-moving steps.
In stumbles a wounded RAF pilot, Harry, played by Andrew Monaghan, falling over himself, with a bandaged forehead, clearly injured. The Angel encourages Cinderella to help him while the others tend to him, bringing him water and making him comfortable. He is then shoved out the door with the rest of the soldiers leaving for Cafe De Paris.
Cinderella is left alone, and finds the pilot's hat left behind laying on the floor. Picking it up and putting it on the mannequin, she again pretends she is dancing with her prince, waltzing merrily around, and sends the mannequin rolling behind a curtain, but when it reappears, magically, it is Harry! They dance a beautiful, joyous pas de deux, where he fluctuates from a stiff-legged rag doll, to a strong and limber partner, lifting her, carrying her across the stage effortlessly. Cinderella's dream seems to be materializing, when Harry dances behind the curtain, and reappears as the mannequin, once again.
Just then, the entire household comes downstairs and whisks out the door, on their way to continue partying.
Alone again, her Angel reappears and partners with her, urging her to go, as the clock tolls the hour at hand. She grabs the shiny slippers, puts them in a small silver suitcase and heads out, him leading the way.
The set changes to a street scene, very hazy, smoky and dim, and we begin to see people searching around with flashlights in the dark. The music is foreboding and intense, and a wonderfully strong men's section ensues, with the flashlights creating a mood of panic and confusion.
Leading Cinderella through all this, the Angel (Liam Mower) is such a strikingly opposite visual to what else is happening. He is very tall and slender, dressed in a white satin suit with silvery-white hair, and dances just beautifully, vascillating between long lines and then angular ones, very fluidly, leaping grandly without much preparation, seemingly floating and ethereal.
We hear dogs barking, sirens blasting and large booms going off as six men with gas masks on, wielding clubs and batons enter and dance an energetic, tight men's section, very Jerome Robbins-style choreography, with interesting floor work, as the confusion and destruction escalate. We begin to realize that this must be the scene of the famous bombing of the legendary Cafe de Paris, on March 8, 1941. The club received a direct hit, killing or seriously injuring nearly 100 dancing couples, cabaret artists, and staff, including the 26-year-old bandleader, Ken "Snake-hips" Johnson.
Cinderella is scared, trying to hide from them, when a loud explosion goes off and she is thrown to the floor. Again, the Angel comes to her rescue and does a delightful adagio with her with lofty lifts, as six male dancers enter all wearing white pilot suits and dance some difficult sections, sort of a Plane dance, if you will, with stylized airplane arms, keeping Cinderella's fantasy going. At the end of their number, she appears in her own white pilot suit, and a pair of goggles, when up pulls the Angel in a white motorcar, attached to a half moon, and whisks her away, which suffices as her Carriage.
Act II opens up on the interior of the Cafe de Paris, and it is literally torn apart, charred walls, a dangling to the ground disco ball from a fallen ceiling, with ghostly dancing couples waltzing by.
The Angel begins to flow through the ballroom, one by one bringing the couples lying on the floor back to life, snapping his finger and bringing the entire scene slowly back, as the dancing intensifies, with more wonderful lifts and stylized choreography, and an entire section done with bent arms, giving an angular look to the choreography. The Bandleader, played amusingly by Alan Vincent, when not on stage with his other role as Dad, is cavorting and wildly dancing with Sybil and there are more dancers added to fill up the ballroom once again, with the entire family joining in... until we hear a bomb and air sirens go off and the ballroom clears.
Again we find the Angel, standing center stage, beckoning four couples to begin dancing again, this time in slow motion, as the Angel solos among them. Suddenly the entrance stairs light up and ever so lovely, Cinderella sweeps down the stairs in a silver and white gown, floating on air, as fog billows in, creating that fantasy feeling Cinderella is caught up in.
Just then, our pilot appears, spotting Cinderella, she spotting him, both hesitating, and then cannot help but be drawn to each other's arms, where they dance, alone, just the two of them, ecstatically. The rest of the family and the party guests join in and the dance ends with Harry dipping Cinderella and planting a kiss. As this ball progresses, Sybil takes turns flirting and dancing with Harry, the brothers are up to mischief and getting quite plastered, and it is plain to see Harry is trying to escape this foxy seductress to go back to Cinderella, but having no luck. Meanwhile, Cinderella is swept off her feet, dancing one by one with all the soldiers there vying for her attention. Finally, Harry breaks away and reunites with Cinderella, and the family, getting more and more inebriated, starts falling down drunk, misbehaving and laughing, hiccuping away. Sybil, sitting atop a piano and carrying on wildly, is interrupted by the Angel, who points to the clock, amplified by the dancing soldiers who swing their female partners legs back and forth, as if ticking off the minutes until midnight.
Sybil enters with a gun and shoots two people, at the same time another huge bomb explodes, and there is a blackout.
Next we see Cinderella and Harry outside begin to dance an adagio together, very passionately and dramatically, performing some unusually placed lifts and looking like they were destined to be together. She starts to cry, and they walk away together, arm in arm. Is this all in her mind?
As the lights dim, we see Cinderella put on a stretcher and carried away, as Harry realizes he has one of her shoes in his hand
Act III opens with another black-and-white film short reporting on the attack in London, showing firemen dousing out flames all over town. Onto the streets of London, where it begins to rain, and then the London Underground, where we see Harry wandering about, again with a head bandage on, approaching people to help him, but no one stops to. A downpour begins as he slips inside where he is surrounded by ladies of the evening, asking him to make payment with the shoe he holds in his hand. After which some thugs show up, taunt him by tossing the shoe around to each other, then beat poor Harry up. He is left laying there, unconscious.
He awakens a short time later, spots the shoe, which he grabs and takes with him, and ends up at a convalescent hospital. Several hospital curtains are wheeled in, and placed and replaced to represent different rooms in the hospital. We see Cinderella sitting on a doctor's table, in one room, with one silver shoe on, back wearing her old wardrobe, the Angel sitting behind her as the doctor. She dreams that she is dancing, flinging herself about, and when she sees the one shoe, she holds it and begins to cry again. Then begins a kind of musical chairs, done with the rolling hospital curtains, rearranged to signify another hospital area. The family enters, with heads bopping, walking very stiffly to the crisp beat, tipping through the different areas looking for Cinderella, in unison, single-file. They parade around everywhere searching for her, finding her, and try to cozy up to her, but she is not having it, so they march back out, mad as hops, fighting amongst themselves.
Sybil slips back in, sneaking back into Cinderella's room and tries to smother her with a pillow, unsuccessfully, and ends up getting dragged out, ranting and railing, claws completely out.
All the characters are so well-defined and unique, all accomplished without uttering a word, through the creativity and blending of Fine Arts.
As the hospital curtains are relocated, we find ourselves in our pilot-prince's hospital room, with the doctor. The nurse hooks him up to a frighteningly strong shock treatment, leaving him limp and unconscious in the chair. He seems to have acquired the silver suitcase Cinderella used for her slippers, refusing to let the doctor look inside of it.
We can now surmise that they are back to their normal selves, and that this is no longer her dream. They are in their regular attire, as pilot and maid. Miraculously, though, Cinderella finds her way to his room and finds him slumped in the chair.
Of course he wakes up, takes the silver slipper in the silver briefcase out, and voila! The perfect fit! Her dream, turned nightmare, turned into reality somehow...
The last scene takes place at Paddington station, where soldiers are being deployed, loved ones are saying their goodbyes, some soldiers are coming back, and a train that looks as real as a train on stage can look is pulling to a stop to load passengers. There are couples in semi-darkness slowly dancing when Cinderella and Harry show up with the silver suitcase now painted with "Just Married" on it's side and do one last partnered dance pass around the station before boarding the train and standing in an embrace, on top of the world. We notice the Angel off to the side, waving goodbye, and finishing up with a glorious display of technique and litheness, grand jeteing and triple pirouetting as he watches the train leave, and starting to walk away, when he notices a girl sitting alone at a table, saunters over to her and waves his hand above her head... as if "Next?"
Remarkable Sets and Costumes designed by Lez Brotherston, provocative and innovative Lighting Design by Neil Austin, adding a touch of brilliant color splashed in among the muted tones of the rest of the color scheme every so often, and luscious, rich Surround-Sound Design by Paul Groothuis. Projection Design was excellent, crediting Duncan McLean.
Matthew Bourne's "Cinderella" is being performed at the Ahmanson Theatre @ 8 p.m., through March 10, 2019.
Photos by Johan Persson