Review: The Phoenix Theatre Company Presents Rodgers and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA

The production, directed by Michael Barnard, runs through January 1st in The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Mainstage Theatre.

By: Nov. 20, 2022
Review: The Phoenix Theatre Company Presents Rodgers and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA

BroadwayWorld/Phoenix is again delighted to welcome David Appleford as a guest contributor to its pages ~ as always, featuring his distinctive, well-balanced, and intelligent perspective on theatre. In this case, he shines the light on The Phoenix Theatre Company's production of CINDERELLA.

Here now ~ From the keyboard of David Appleford:

There's a climactic scene in a mostly forgotten 1934 Broadway musical called The Great Waltz where the whole cast entered from all corners of the stage to the sounds of The Blue Danube. The static look of a Vienna ballroom suddenly changed into a whirling mass of beautiful, colorful dresses as the cast held each other in their arms and gracefully twirled in ever-increasing circles to the sounds of the world's most famous waltz.

Whether that ballroom scene in the 1934 original production of The Great Waltz or the 1938 movie influenced the staging of the ballroom scene in the 2013 Broadway update of Rodgers and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA is hard to say, though it is worth noting that during the thirties, Hollywood hired Oscar Hammerstein to write both the screenplay and new lyrics for the Johann Strauss biography. His involvement with that project and seeing what worked and what didn't may have inspired his book for the 76-minute television production of CINDERELLA, a short musical he wrote with Richard Rodgers which first aired in 1957. The two ballroom scenes certainly looked the same, but there was one major difference: while The Great Waltz waited until the end of the production to finally shows signs of life, the Broadway revival and much expanded Rodgers and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA was ablaze in activity and swirling color from the beginning.

Playing now and continuing throughout the Christmas holiday season until January 1st, is that expanded Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA presented by The Phoenix Theatre Company in Phoenix. With its sparkling, kaleidoscopic array of ever-changing colors that dominate this vibrant, lavishly designed production, CINDERELLA is perhaps the epitome of a magical, musical theatre production, the kind that has earned The Phoenix Theatre Company its reputation as a leading player for musical theatre in the Valley. It is quite spectacular.

The story arc is as you know it. Cinderella lives with a wicked stepmother and two step sisters and is forced into a life of servitude while the mother and the two sisters lounge around waiting for their next social-climbing opportunity, which in this case will be the prince's ball and a chance to be picked as a royal bride. That's the tradition. This updated version with a new book by writer Douglas Carter Beane aims at a new audience with modern tastes and sensibilities. With a story that has Cinders - here known as Ella - encouraging a sense of social responsibility and fairness in the prince when ruling the land and his people, audiences will quickly see that this version of CINDERELLA is as much about the prince and his development as it is about the bullied and tormented Ella.

Director Michael Barnard, who knows a thing or two regarding musical staging, has assembled a strong cast of local professional talent to tell this new version of the famous fairy tale. Alex Branton plays the handsome though often comically bemused prince - here known as Prince Topher, the clumsy-sounding back end of Christopher - as a young man at a crossroads in his life who is advised to find a bride before he is finally crowned king. But there's a problem. "I don't know any girls," he complains. "I went to an all-boys school in the woods. And then I attended an all-male university. On an island."

Then there's a wonderfully playful D. Scott Withers as Sebastian, the prince's advisor, and the show's principal villain; a scheming, devious snob whose dislike of the lower classes is based on a fear of the poor and what they might do if they ever became organized. When he advises the king to give poor Ella some money for bringing him water in the woods, Sebastian explains why the prince should leave a tip. "You have things and she doesn't," Sebastian states. "You're going to give her some of your things so she doesn't have a revolution and take all of your things."

The two Ugly Sisters are here not ugly at all. Charlotte (a very funny Kate Cook) may be brash, snotty, and expressively loud and vulgar - "I can taste my lunch!" she exclaims in pain as Ella tightens her step-sister's corset - but her self-obsessed demands are not as cruel as fairy tale tradition has previously dictated. The second sister, Gabrielle (a hugely likable Michelle Chin) unlike her sibling, is surprisingly good-natured with a healthy wit. When trying to defend the appalling actions of her mother, Gabrielle explains, "Madame isn't always terrible, Sometimes she sleeps."

As for the Wicked Stepmother Madame herself, as played by Sally Jo Bannow with her animated, broad, facial expressions and exaggerated body movements, plus those frightening, maniacal laughs, all at the expense of Ella's misfortunes, Bannow could easily transfer the whole performance into a European Christmas pantomime version of the wicked stepmother with no changes. And that's a compliment. She is quite perfect. Here, Madame is certainly cruel to her step-daughter, but it's her social-climbing vanity and her brazen desire for wealth that is on full display. When explaining where the family currently stands on the social ladder and why they need to rise further, Madame states, "We are teetering precariously between upper-middle class and lower-upper class!"

New characters created for the story are Lord Pinkerton (Aaron Ford) the man who acts as a town-crier to the townsfolk, making royal proclamations, like oncoming banquets, royal balls, and a summary of the news, adding, "I'll be back at eleven with local weather and sports." Plus, there's Jean-Michel (a convincingly passionate Kendrick Stallings), a potentially revolutionary instigator representing the people who want the prince to see what is happening to his people in his kingdom. He's also drawn to Gabrielle, the nicer of the two step-sisters.

Rounding out the show's principal characters are Maria Amorocho as a delightful fairy godmother, here called Marie, and Ella herself played by Joy Del Valle whose bubbly nature and dazzling bright smile instantly captivates an audience the moment she first enters pushing a cart in the woods while looking for firewood to take back to the cottage. No wonder the prince falls for her the second she appears at the ball.

The show, with its visual splendor and fanciful colors, all lit by Tim Monson's vibrant, eye-catching lighting design, showcases the magic before our eyes on the Phoenix Theatre Company's Mainstage in the same way the original Broadway production did. No one walks offstage in rags and then suddenly re-emerges in dazzling costumes; the magic unfurls before us to the cheers and applause of an enraptured Phoenix audience. Scenic Designer Robert Kovach's set effortlessly slides on and off stage as the nearby woods effectively transforms into the entrance by the castle, the interior of Madame's home, or wherever the story takes us next.

As the program states, the costumes, the gowns, and the sparkling dresses intricately designed and embroidered with hundreds of sequins that twinkle and glitter like a mirror ball as if they have a life of their own, were created originally by Vincent Scassellati and Kenneth Burrell and coordinated regionally under the watchful eye of designer Cece Sickler.

In truth, musically, this is not vintage Rodgers and Hammerstein. Those who grew up with the 1957 Julie Andrews TV production and played the album repeatedly will recall some of the songs simply through repetition, but generally, if this is a new show to you, despite outstanding arrangements and performances from a thirteen-piece orchestra under Alan Plado's musical direction, it's doubtful you'll be exiting the theatre with any show tunes dancing in your head. But what's important here has nothing to do with individual songs. It's the overall effect of the production. Chosen as its holiday season family special, this regional production of CINDERELLA is a prime example of the excellence that The Phoenix Theatre Company has developed over the years.

Final word, and it's something that's always bothered me when telling the tale of Cinderella. If all of Ella's sparkling gowns and dresses turn back to rags at midnight, how come the glass slipper survives? Just a thought.

CINDERELLA runs through January 1st in The Phoenix Theatre Company's Mainstage Theatre.

The Phoenix Theatre Company ~ 1825 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ ~ ~ 602-254-2151

Poster credit to TPTC