Review: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA at Theatre Memphis

Now Through June 30th

By: Jun. 13, 2024
Review: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA at Theatre Memphis
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Quick, name your favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein song! Is it, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’?” Or “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair?” How about, “Do-Re-Mi” or “Shall We Dance?” Anyone pick “Ridicule” or “Loneliness of Evening?” I didn’t think so.

The same might be said for choosing your favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Most people are likely to say SOUTH PACIFIC, THE KING AND I or THE SOUND OF MUSIC. True “theatre nerds” might even choose CAROUSEL or FLOWER DRUM SONG, but CINDERELLA? You know…RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA…that musical with such memorable songs as “Your Majesty” and “Eight O’clock and All is Well?” No?

There’s a reason. Suffice it to say that after 67 years, if this musical hasn’t found its way onto anyone’s “Top 100 Musicals of All-time List” by now, it’s not going to happen. Perhaps it’s because it was never meant to be on a theatrical stage in the first place. A year after NBC presented Mary Martin as PETER PAN to high acclaim, CBS wanted to mimic the success and asked the writing team of Rodgers and Hammerstein to create a musical solely for television-hence the creation of CINDERELLA starring Julie Andrews in 1957.

That production ran for only 76 minutes (90-minute time slot with commercials throughout) and was viewed by over one hundred million people at the time. Since then, the show has had multiple versions (tv, movies and even Broadway productions) with several songs added over the years. With all its “tweaking” though, it still has failed to reach the upper echelons of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s catalog of greatest hits. Except for possibly, “In My Own Little Corner,” none of the songs are recognizable or memorable. Instead, they are nearly indistinguishable from each other lacking any catchy choruses or refrains. On paper, this musical should work (well-known story combined with Rodgers and Hammerstein music), so this antique gets pulled out every once in a while to see if it’s still mediocre. It is.

Theatre Memphis’ current rendition which opened this past weekend and runs through June 30th only solidifies the case because this production could not be produced any better. With easily the best scenic, costume, lighting design and performances to be seen on any Memphis stage this season, if this group of artists can’t make this show work, no one can.

The directing/choreographic team of Jordan Nichols and Travis Bradley are back again to deliver the highest quality show one could ever imagine-professional or not. The sheer man hours that have gone into producing this mammoth production are clear at every turn. Although the plot of the Rodgers and Hammerstein story has experienced minor variations over the years, this Cinderella still deals with an evil stepmother and sisters followed by a prince who ultimately sees her true beauty and falls in love. It’s an interesting unfolding of events for the under-6 princesses scattered about the audience dressed in their ball gowns. What are their takeaways through their modern-day lens? What’s the lesson here? Regardless, the story is timeless, easy to follow and, as always, has a happy ending.

Review: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA at Theatre Memphis

It's inconceivable how one man (Jack Netzel-Yates) can continue to create endless breathtaking scenic designs show after show, season after season, yet he somehow finds ways to keep topping himself. Here, he’s created absolute perfection with a clock proscenium arch encircling a magical world filled with exquisite takes on forests, homes, castles, horses and carriages. The detail is amazing (from the painted floors to the trees on travelers sliding back and forth creating movement with lanterns smartly stowed above). Audience members have no idea how hard these designs are to imagine, let alone create or how lucky we are (and have been over the years) to witness. We are not worthy!

Marvelously supporting and bolstering Netzel-Yates masterpieces are Nicole Northington’s lighting design(s). They each make the other one even better. Northington has learned how to wholly support and highlight the scenic design in a “marriage of artistry” that is simply breathtaking. There’s a musicality to her designs which flow elegantly with the moods of the music and always blend with absolute synchronicity. Audiences continue to be incredibly spoiled.

Finally, Amie Eoff deserves every prize imaginable for her intricately devised and perfectly fitted costume design. This is an enormous cast of performers who all wear multiple outfits that seem to all be made entirely from scratch. Finding costumes that fit so well are difficult for contemporary pieces, but to do this with period clothing is a gargantuan task and everyone looks simply flawless. The story also calls for multiple “quick change” tricks before our eyes and they work just as they should-magically.

Review: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA at Theatre Memphis

Being that this is a community theatre production, it’s not surprising that Nichols and Bradley want to fill the stage with as many people as possible (the more, the merrier), but might have gone a bit overboard here as The Dancing Couples are literally on top of each other (Reducing The Dancing Couples from eight to six would have fit the space better). Still, the overall choreography is robust, jovial and impressive. Special attention goes to Cade Forbes and CJ Hampton as the dancing animals transformed to human and back again.

Review: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA at Theatre Memphis
Jasmine Gillenwaters as Cinderella

As the Ella who must clean the chimney (Cinder Ella) and scrub the floors, Jasmine Gillenwaters is a breath of fresh air, both in song and dance. Although her character isn’t given much of a range (smiling and forgiving no matter her circumstance) Gillenwaters has the “star power” to keep the character engaging and she’s a joy to watch. She has the voice and grace of an angel. We all want to be like her when we grow up.

Review: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA at Theatre Memphis
Aden Pettet as Topher

Speaking of stage presence, Aden Pettet is talented beyond his years as Cinderella’s Prince Charming (Topher). This Tom Holland doppelganger is smooth, cool and collected with the voice of, well, a prince. He’s also able to elevate himself above the pitfalls of being an “all looks, no brains” matinee idol and instead brings depth to a young man who’s trying to help his people and dismiss the superficial allure of power. Pettet is going places.

Review: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA at Theatre Memphis
Jaclyn Suffel as Madame

Jaclyn Suffel is an enjoyably evil stepmother (Madame) who takes pleasure in degrading and chastising Ella every chance she gets. More than once, Suffel rips the clothing off her beleaguered stepdaughter as she does everything in her power to elevate her own biological (and evil) daughters’ prominence in the eyes of the prince. Suffel manages to strike just the right balance between being evil, funny and disturbing (a delicate balance indeed).

Review: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA at Theatre Memphis
Emily F. Chateau as Gabrielle
Review: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA at Theatre Memphis
Arielle Mitchell as Charlotte

The rightfully despicable stepsisters (Gabrielle played by Emily F. Chateau and Charlotte played by Arielle Mitchell) take turns “out hamming” the other through makeup, hair, costume and attitude. They each have a moment to shine (especially in Act II) in comic relief with Chateau’s super “nasally” voice and Mitchell’s powerhouse interpretation of “Stepsister’s Lament.” They both keep the characters fun, silly and buffoonish (just what the kids in the audience ordered).

Jean-Michel is a new character to this version of the classic tale. Here, he is a man of the people hoping to bring attention to the kingdom about the challenges of the less fortunate. His naiveté and optimism are attractive to Gabrielle and the two work well together as newly found lovebirds. As played by Camden Douglas, he’s earnest, winsome and wise.

Review: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA at Theatre Memphis
Lauren Duckworth as Marie

As the town eccentric, doubling as Cinderella’s secret fairy godmother (Marie), Lauren Duckworth almost meets the moment, but falls just short in her portrayal. While her voice is nice, her movements and character lack the mysticism and otherworldly magic of someone who can make the impossible possible every single day. Those sweeping arms and walks across the stage expose the ordinary when grandly majestic is what’s needed here.

Review: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA at Theatre Memphis
Brandon R. Dickerson as Sebastian

Finally, in this version, the most deliciously evil pseudo-stepparent of them all must go to Brandon R. Dickerson as the prince’s guardian, Sebastian. As a cross between Lord Farquaad in SHREK THE MUSICAL and Evillene (The Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZ), Dickerson slices and dices everyone in his path on his way to power. His plan to work with Madame to secretly rule the kingdom is devilishly sinister and a constant delight to behold. He’s a diva with a scepter and he’s not afraid to beat you with it if he must. Such fun!

This Theatre Memphis production is easily the best version of RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA you’re likely to ever see. Technically, it’s definitely the best thing you’ll see on a Memphis stage this year. Unfortunately, you won’t leave humming any of the tunes and you’ll be hard pressed to remember any of the titles either. Instead, you’ll take away visuals of elegance and beauty combined with memories of an incredibly talented cast of hardworking performers. You’ll know you’ve been entertained-not by the material itself, but by the talent of the artists involved. And what could possibly be evil about that?

Photos by Carla McDonald




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