BWW Review: RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA Is Wild Deviation from Expectation
The Muny's current production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella is definitely not Walt Disney's Cinderella. It is nothing like Perrault's or the Grimm Brothers' Cinderella. It's not even pure Rodgers & Hammerstein, but rather a 2013 adaptation based on Rodgers & Hammerstein with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane. This musical holds the essence of your beloved fairytale but is infused (I must warn you upfront) with complicating new characters, a clumsy and confusing reordering of the original songs, and a conspicuous political subplot. Essentially, this adaptation, which tries to be everything simultaneously - old fashioned and new-fangled, traditional and progressive - is mostly just too much. In every way imaginable.
Let's begin with the plot itself, since that is what will likely most impress or disturb its audience. Everything is going pretty swimmingly in Act 1. There's a dead father, an evil stepmother (Alison Fraser as Madame), and a couple of mean-ish stepsisters (Stephanie Gibson as Gabrielle and Jennifer Cody as Charlotte). But there are also a few clues that this modern (Cinder)Ella (Mikaela Bennett) is going to turn convention on its head. Also, stepsister Gabrielle isn't so bad. She's actually kind of cool. The Fairy Godmother, also known as Crazy Marie (Ashley Brown), is the town beggar, who incidentally has been transformed herself, by Ella's kindness. Marie does not change Ella into the storybook-puffy-white-ballgown Barbie we all have come to expect, because our Ella is a brunette, built like real girls we know, wearing a dress reminiscent of Monet's Water Lilies that Marie might have bought off-the-rack at JCPenney. That's all pretty cool, actually. These changes elicit a welcome freshness. But as Act 1 ends, Ella drops (and then runs back to retrieve!) the glass slipper. And then Act 2 starts with a whole slew of new plot points that begin muddying up the theme.
Instead of relying on a tried-and-true storyline wherein a destitute girl dreams of a better life that somehow magically finds her, this version introduces Ella as a budding activist who will present a voice on behalf of the common people once she finds a way to that ball, which causes this storybook princess to teeter in a gray area between strong political revolutionary and helpless indentured servant. Madame/Evil Stepmother, who we ultimately don't even need to like, totters between cruel and kind. The kingdom firebrand, Jean-Michel (Chad Burris), seems to be a pretty clichéd mouthpiece for political correctness. And a goofball-ish Prince Topher (Jason Gotay) bounces along at the misguided direction of Sebastian (John Scherer), the Lord Chancellor, until Topher decides, in the end, to elect a Prime Minister in an attempt to satisfy the concerns of his citizens. Sadly though, Topher doesn't nominate Ella, but rather two men, one of them being Sebastian! In addition, in this version, Prince Topher hosts a second banquet, hoping Ella will return, which she does, but not before running off again, because she doesn't want Topher to see her as she really is. Want to make radical changes to the original? Want to make Ella a feminist? Do it! Please, someone do it! But run with it. All the way. And leave the shoe the first time! For goodness' sake! Leave the shoe! Unfortunately, there are many extraneous and too-quickly-resolved story threads in the second act, and as a result of all this extra fluff, Ella no longer seems extraordinary. Or maybe everyone seems extraordinary (because everyone is now competing for the biggest character arc), which makes our heroine no more extraordinary than the next.
To top it off, this version of the story discounts the very foundation of the original fairy tale, and that is that true love will find you to overcome even the most dismal circumstances and that magic sometimes happens as a result of pure luck and happenstance.
Unfortunately, the staging is also a bit disjointed. The scenic design combines contemporary animated projections of video-game-like ogres, dragons, and other mythical creatures with a vintage painted backdrop of twisted woods and a majestic castle in the distance. The castle's interior rich reds and golds clash with a vivid jewel-toned sitting room at Cinderella's cottage, which I suppose, is the point. But sometimes pieces of many of these opposing worlds are onstage together, and without any recognizable tie-in, it forces them to compete in a way that contributes to the discord. The costumes too, while all are exquisite on their own, are a befuddling mishmash all together, of old-world peasant and sharp-angled haute couture, Cyndi Lauper and Lord Farquaad. Kaitlyn A. Adams' wigs are whimsical, wonderful, and worth a special shout-out though, as some of them appear to have adventurous lives of their own.
All of that said, very fortunately, the singing, dancing, and acting are stellar. Bennett makes a strikingly beautiful and modern princess Cinderella, her authenticity palpable and her voice big and glorious, particularly in her rendition of "In My Own Little Corner" and "Ten Minutes Ago." Brown simply sparkles with her beautiful lavender hair and exquisite gown in "Impossible." Both women, in fact, help carry the show with their radiant deliveries along with their magical and awe-inspiring whirly, twirly costume transformations. The harmonies in "A Lovely Night" are wonderful as well (and so are the dance moves) as Bennet, Fraser, Gibson, and Cody showcase their robust vocal talents. Gotay makes a handsome and believable young prince, and Scherer as well as Victor Ryan Robertson as Lord Pinkerton are a fine royal support system.
In addition, the puppeteers make delightful skittering creatures of Eric Wright's puppets, which include charming little foxes, birds, pigs, and raccoons that are lithe and swift and enchanting. Josh Walden's choreography is gorgeous, particularly during "Gavotte" and the extremely romantic "Waltz For a Ball." In all, this production makes a commendable attempt at bringing cohesion and beauty to a book that wants to breathe new life into an old favorite. Under Marcia Milgrom Dodge's masterful direction, the entire cast works hard to honor the work and do just that. Even with its issues, it's still a pretty thought-provoking piece of work, worth seeing and comparing to the versions you know and love.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella plays at The Muny through July 16. For more information and tickets, https://muny.org/cinderella/.