Middle Tennessee State University's RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA Proves Anything Is Possible

Kristi Shamburger and Will Perkins Direct 'Beautifully Stage and Wonderfully Sung' Musical Theater Classic

By: Nov. 06, 2023
Middle Tennessee State University's RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA Proves Anything Is Possible

If, like me, you grew up in the 1960s, chances are your penchant for musical theater is the result of the annual television broadcasts of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella – the lushly scored and epically romantic tale of a hard-working and put-upon young orphan girl who is transformed via the machinations of a fairy godmother into a beautiful princess who finds love and happiness at a fancy-dress ball hosted by a royal family in search of the perfect mate for their dashing and charming, yet feckless, son. We fell in love with Julie Andrews when she was first cast in the role (in the same year we – I’m using the royal “we” now, so try to keep up – were born), then later with Lesley Anne Warren when she took up Cinderella’s mopbucket and broom in 1965.

Middle Tennessee State University's RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA Proves Anything Is Possible
Zakyra McKinney

It is thanks to these glimpses of the magical, mythical world of musical theater every year, that we discovered something more lasting and, indeed, inspirational – an eternal truth about the transformative power of theater – that proved an epiphany which led to a career.

For it is thanks to these yearly visits with Cinderella that we learned of a world far away from the dreary drabness of everyday life in our very small and rather humdrum hometown, of a fanciful place where heightened emotions are best expressed through song and dance, and where our most vividly imagined dreams are possible.

We also learned the wisdom behind the selection of footwear and the impact its selection and care can portend for the trajectory of one’s future endeavors. This, perhaps, is the greatest lesson gleaned from years of watching Cinderella on a small black-and-white Sylvania television (which grew colorful as the years flew by and where, like Dorothy’s journey over the rainbow, placed us in the midst of a technicolor fantasyland to which we still aspire and pledge allegiance to) and we’re happy to share that piece of advice with you.

Middle Tennessee State University's RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA Proves Anything Is Possible Today we celebrate our most recent sojourn with Cinderella and company, thanks to the sumptuously designed, beautifully staged and wonderfully sung Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, presented in an all-too-brief one-weekend run at Middle Tennessee State University’s Tucker Theatre in Murfreesboro. Co-directed by Kristi Shamburger and Will Perkins, in a stunning collaboration of MTSU’s respected theatre and dance and music departments, the production featured gorgeous voices, focused actors and dancers (the entertaining and sparkling choreography is by student Paige Lovell), a full orchestra (under the direction of the gifted Angela Tipps) playing the memorable Rodgers and Hammerstein score with passion and verve, offering a visual/auditory (save for some really nasty feedback issues that threatened to derail the production and make my ears bleed) feast for theater-goers of all ages lucky enough to be on hand for the fantastical event.

Middle Tennessee State University's RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA Proves Anything Is Possible
Cameron Roberts

The production’s gorgeous design aesthetic derives, in large part, from the 2022 presentation of the musical at Crossville’s Cumberland County Playhouse (winner of our 2023 First Night Award for Outstanding Musical), which featured scenic design by Curtis Phillips, costume design by Austin Blake Conlee (winner of the 2023 First Night Award for outstanding costume design) and properties designed by Sam Hahn. MTSU’s own multiple-First Night Award winner Scott Boyd masterfully incorporates CCP’s designs into his own vision to create an eye-poppingly gorgeous setting for the tale of Cinderella, which is lighted to perfection by the university’s uber talented – and First Night Award-winning – Darren E. Levin.

Remembering that it was some 45-plus years since I first reviewed a musical presented on that very same stage (and in consideration of all the other shows I’ve reviewed at MTSU over the past four-and-a-half decades), I feel confident in proclaiming that 2023’s Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella is indeed the very best musical I’ve ever seen at the Tucker Theatre. Some 48 hours later, I’m still floating on the air of some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beautiful songs and my stirring recollections of a show and cast with whom I have very clearly fallen in love (major props and unparalleled respect due to their teachers and mentors).

Middle Tennessee State University's RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA Proves Anything Is Possible
Cameron Roberts and Zakyra McKinney

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella is ultimately an inspiring tale of the magic to be found in long-nurtured dreams, along with the pursuit of a love match that defies class lines and social structures. Now, thanks to the updated book by Douglas Carter Beane that debuted with the musical’s 2013 revival on Broadway, the memory-laden and beloved show is given a new and refreshing interpretation that presents a Cinderella for the 21st Century.

Beane’s upbeat and revised book which, arguably, somehow makes the story more palatable and more political (how is that even possible in this day and age?), infusing it with some genuinely, even outrageously, funny moments that will appeal to all manner of audience members.

By including new characters and allowing others to evolve into something more appealing, the tale of Cinderella gains more resonance and deeper meaning, adding to the centuries-old richness of both the title character and those around her. The result is a far more accessible tale that allows contemporary audiences to more closely identify with Cinderella and her inherent struggles – as well as her desire to make more of herself and her life, and to improve the lives of all those around her. This new Cinderella seeks more than to find a royal partner to lift her out of her life of drudgery; she looks for a partner with whom to collaborate and make the world a better place.

Middle Tennessee State University's RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA Proves Anything Is Possible
Erin Seifert and Zakyra McKinney

The deft hands of co-directors Shamburger and Perkins are felt throughout the wonderfully paced two hours-plus (they magically made time stand still for the duration of the performance) and they confidently take on the revised script with a clear vision of what they hope to present to their audiences. Lovell’s fancy footwork is performed with an effervescent energy that serves the material and her dancing actors well.

Cast in the eponymous role of Cinderella, Zakyra McKinney is focused and committed – she is a fairy-tale ideal, truth be told – as Ella and her lovely voice breathes life and vitality into her songs. Her renditions of “My Own Little Corner” and “He Was Tall” are delightful, but it is her duets with Prince Topher (winningly played with massive amounts of charm and a self-deprecating sense of humor by Cameron Roberts) that prove most entertaining. “Ten Minutes Ago” and “Loneliness of Evening” are exquisitely sung and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful” is as stunning as any rendition I have ever encountered, the perfect musical moment for a fledgling romance that seems certain to deepen. It will always be one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved and lyrical love songs.

Middle Tennessee State University's RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA Proves Anything Is Possible
Katelyn Austin and Chris Cooper

Erin Seifert, cast as “crazy” Marie (Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother), is absolutely enchanting in the role, with a voice so rich and so mature that you will be scratching your head in wonder at how someone so young could be so utterly convincing in the role. Her “There’s Music In You,” one of four “new” songs added to the score for the 2013 revival, is inspiring and beautiful, and her duet with McKinney on “Impossible” lovingly provides a nostalgic respite of memories of all those earlier Cinderella productions with which we grew up.

Llewyn Beaver is impressive as the imperious Madame, effectively commanding the stage with their indefinable presence, and generally bossing around Cinderella’s stepsisters – known here as Charlotte and Gabrielle – with rather officious ease. As the conniving and duplicitous Sebastian, Tao Bouakham is all smarmy smugness, which makes him the ideal co-conspirator for Beaver’s Madame.

Middle Tennessee State University's RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA Proves Anything Is Possible
Hailey-Ann Harlen

Hailey-Ann Harlen puts her scene-stealing abilities to full use as Charlotte, leading the women’s ensemble through a riotous performance of “Stepsister’s Lament” that rollicking good fun, and Katelyn Austin is sweetly self-effacing and kind as Gabrielle, who is given the chance to show off her own comedic chops in scenes with the likable Chris Cooper (who easily blends boyish enthusiasm with adult self-doubt) as local revolutionary firebrand Jean Michel. Their “just right” pairing sweetly mirrors that of Ella and Topher.

Beaver, Harlen and Austin team up with McKinney for Act Two’s sublime “Lovely Night” to create one of the evening’s most memorable musical moments.

Middle Tennessee State University's RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA Proves Anything Is Possible
Tate Burgess

Also worthy of note: Tate Burgess’ performance as Lord Pinkleton is at once sharply crafted and understated as he uses his ample charm and wit to claim his place in the spotlight while in the process of showing off his own set of gorgeous pipes on “The Prince is Giving a Ball.”

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. New book by Douglas Carter Beane. Original book by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Kristi Shamburger and Will Perkins. Musical direction by Angela Tipps. Choreographed by Paige Lovell. Assistant directed by Julia Vairetta. Stage managed by Susie Monk, Anna Hall and Holly Seeley. Presented by the Middle Tennessee State University Department of Theatre and Dance and the Department of Music. At the Tucker Theatre, Murfreesboro. November 2-5. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

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