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Cinderella: A Bad Mamma Jamma?

Indulge me for a moment, please. I promise, I will soon be telling you all about how the tween and early teen girls in your life will have a grand and magical time at The Paper Mill's production of Cinderella. And I'm sure they will. The target audience for this production should be delighted. Those who expect to see a performance of the musical Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, since the show is billed as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, may be somewhat less than delighted.

This adaptation of the classic fairy tale started as a 1957 live television special, written especially for the small screen. With Julie Andrews starring in a brand new work by America's favorite Broadway musical team, 107 million people nationwide heard songs like "Ten Minutes Ago", "In My Own Little Corner" and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful" for the first time. A 1965 "revival" saw Leslie Ann Warren play the title role in another televised special, but the Paper Mill's production is taken from Robert L. Freedman's teleplay for the 1997 TV special starring Brandy, adapted for the stage by Tom Briggs. At its heart, it's still pretty much Rodgers and Hammerstein, and although the changes to the text are substantial, I doubt if the little girls who attend the show dressed in princess outfits waving magic wands to the music will really care, unless they learned at an early age to respect the the work of deceased authors.

The addition that works best is that a bit of backstory is given concerning Cinderella's biological parents, with a connection suggested between the Fairy Godmother and her birth mother. There's even a little background given about Cinderella's father's second marriage, giving the show a healthy dose of realism to go with the fantasy. Also healthy in its realism is that the prince is depicted with more humanity, rather than just a prize for the prettiest girl. "The Sweetest Sounds" from No Strings, the first Rodgers musical to premiere on Broadway after Hammerstein's death, is inserted into the score and used in the same manner as it was in its original show; to demonstrate the similar longings of the two leads before they even meet.

As is the custom nowadays with young female characters in musicals, and a worthy custom it is, the title character is made to do more than just sit there wishing for a better life. She tries to improve her situation. And it's only when her best effort completely fails that the Fairy Godmother says something to the effect of, "Well, at least you tried. Now I'm going to magically do everything for you." (Not exactly as inspiring as "Climb Every Mountain", but it's a start.)

But what doesn't work as well, and cheapens the show quite a bit, is the use of contemporary slang and attitudes peppered throughout the book for comic effect. It's like doing the book of The Wiz with the score of The Wizard of Oz; the two don't blend easily. So when Cinderella complains about the "same old same old", the Fairy Godmother dismisses a more traditional appearance with "been there, done that" and, especially, when a prettied-up Cinderella is referred to as "a bad mamma jamma", the attempt to be hip backfires and winds up sounding more corny than Kansas on August.

But if this all sounds like your slice of pumpkin pie, you'll certainly be wanting extra helpings with lots of whipped cream. Despite my objections, director Gabriel Barre's frothy production is well-played and cheery with appealing performances and stagecraft that works its magic without overwhelming the material.

Angela Gaylor's spunky Cinderella has some believable rough edges to her, with a singing voice that eschews the traditionally pretty sound in favor of gutsy determination. Paolo Montalban is an extremely charismatic, smooth singing prince.

"Boys and Girls Like You and Me", a song cut from Oklahoma, is added to the score with little effect plotwise, but any moment that gives a couple of terrific pros like Joy Franz (as the queen) and Larry Keith (as the king) a chance to duet is fine with me.

Cinderella's book never had many good jokes to begin with, but Nora Mae Lyng (stepmother), Janelle Anne Robinson and Jen Cody (stepsisters) still manage to amuse with their antics, especially Cody, who I'm sure could squeeze a laugh out of a brick. Also amusing are Suzzanne Douglas as the Fairy Godmother, Stanley Wayne Mathis as the royal steward and a sextet of puppeteers (James Bulleri, Ron DeStefano, Jason Robinson, Dante Russo, Jason Weston and David Tankersley) as Cinderella's animal friends.

The production looks lovely with Pamela Scofield's multi-cultural costumes and set designer James Youmans and lighting designer Tim Hunter teaming up for some magical moments. Kids and their parents, and even adults without kids, will find many reasons to be delighted.

 

Photos by Gerry Goodstein: Top: Stanley Wayne Mathis and chorus
Center: Joy Franz and Larry Keith
Bottom: Paolo Montalban and Angela Gaylor


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