April 3, 2013

The New "Cinderella" Still Has Old-Style Charm

Fairy tales ain’t what they used to be. Books like “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” and “Glass Slippers & Jeweled Masques” have brought an edgier, and even erotic, vibe to the old stories. Meanwhile, movies now portray characters like Hansel, Gretel and Snow White as crossbow-wielding vigilantes. 

So it's a nice surprise to find that the musical now called Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella is a more or less traditional spin on the old beloved fable about the neglected girl who gets to marry the charming prince.  It may not be a great show but it is a pleasant one.

This Cinderella is the latest update—and the stage debut—of the TV musical that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for Julie Andrews back in 1957 (click here to see it on YouTube). It was revised for Lesley Ann Warren eight years later (click here for a 10-minute excerpt) and given a multi-racial makeover starring  Brandy in 1997 (click here for see all of it)

The master revisionist for this new version is Douglas Carter Beane, who, while keeping the fairy godmother and the glass slipper, has also tucked in some contemporary elements.
Among the additions are Carter’s trademark campy one-liners. They sometimes clang on the ear but they aren’t really all that different from the anachronistic wisecracks now common in animated fairy stories ranging from “Shrek” to “Tangled.”   

A more significant change is Carter’s decision to beef up the role of the prince to the point that an alternate new title for the show might have been “Cinderella’s Fella.” Borrowing from the now-popular rom-com trope that reverses the old fairytale scenario, it’s the guy who really needs rescuing in this tale.   

The prince, who gets the opening number in the show, is a well-meaning guy (he’s been given the hip-dude name of Topher) but he hasn’t quite grown up and what he needs is a smart gal to show him how to do it. Enter Cinderella who has the kind of you-go-girl spunk that now seems to be requisite for all young heroines.
Topher could have been a generic airhead but Santino Fontana, the ever resourceful actor who was equally terrific as the stoic lead character in Sons of the Prophet and as the firebrand brother in Billy Elliot, brings an appealing earnestness to the role that makes this prince truly charming (click here for an interview with him)
Meanwhile, Laura Osnes, starring in her fifth Broadway show in just six years, is petite and pretty and posses a crystalline soprano that is perfect for Cinderella. I’ve occasionally found Osnes to be bland in the past but here she gives a spirited performance and confirms her status as Broadway's reigning ingenue. 

This made-for-each-other couple is surrounded by an incredible supporting cast that includes the ever-droll Peter Bartlett as the prince’s duplicitous prime minister, the wry Harriet Harris as Cinderella's evil stepmother, a hilarious Ann Harada as one of the evil stepsisters and Victoria Clark in glorious voice as the fairy godmother (click here to read an interview with her).
And, of course, there are the vintage songs. This is a B-grade Rodgers & Hammerstein score but it does include such can’t-stop-humming-them tunes as “In My Own Little Corner, “Impossible,” and "Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful.”  A few additional songs have been recruited from other R&H shows but they fit in nicely with the originals.
The creative team does its part too. Anna Louizos' enchanted forest makes an idyllic setting for the show but it’s William Ivey Long’s costumes that provide the real magic, transforming Cinderella’s shabby dress into a beautiful ball gown while she's in full view of the audience. 
There are some missteps. Director Mark Brokaw has Cinderella sitting outside, instead of by the chimney, when she sings about being in her own little corner. A scene in which the stepsisters fantasize about what life with the prince might be strains much too hard to be funny.  
The show is also too long. What was originally a 90-minute TV special now clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours. 

 But none of that seemed to matter to the little girls in sparkly dresses who dotted the audience on the school night that my sister Joanne and I saw the show. Most of them got their parents to buy the $15 tiaras on sale in the lobby. 

Fairy tales may be fractured and rewritten to fit the vagaries or gender norms of the day.  But the one thing that never seems to change is the yearning to be a princess, even if it's just for one enchanted evening. 

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