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Charming re-imagined CINDERELLA with a social message

Roy Berko

(Member:  American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the fathers of the modern American musical, were advocates of social responsibility.  In OKLAHOMA, they stressed the building of community, in SOUTH PACIFIC they pegged prejudice, and in THE KING AND I, the duo examined intercultural understandings.

They would be pleased to know that Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote the new book for their 1957 for-television musical, CINDERELLA, has picked up their social cause theme and added the need for civility, and that there can be democracy within a monarch, and a plea for forgiveness, to their fairy tale story.

Fairy tales have been the subject of many Broadway musicals, including BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, INTO THE WOODS, and THE LITTLE MERMAID.  As evidenced by the many little girls adorned with tiaras and chiffon gowns at CINDERELLA, Broadway’s newest tale of happily-ever-after, it may be one of the most beloved fantasy stories.  Interestingly, more than a few adult females stopped at the merchandise sales booth to buy their own rhinestone headgear.

The legendary Cinderella story centers on the put-upon Ella, an orphaned girl, being brought up by her mean stepmother and harassing sisters, who is forced to do manual labor and sit by the fireplace, thus being tagged “Cinder-Ella.”   The handsome prince of the kingdom is looking for a bride.  A ball is held to showcase the country’s female candidates.  Of course, while her sisters are invited, Ella is not.  Her fairy godmother (a forest bag lady) arranges for a pumpkin to be transformed into a golden coach, mice into horses, forest creatures into footmen, and dresses the young lady in princess garb.  And, of course, there are the glass slippers, her appearance at the ball, the prince falling in love, the search for his ladylove, and the happily ever-after ending.

But this script doesn’t exactly totally follow the tale’s traditional story line.

Beane’s version cuts out the king and queen, and adds new characters, such as Jean-Michel, a peasant political do-gooder, who lusts after Cinderella’s nice sister, Gabriella, and Sebastian, the prince’s mean-spirited advisor.  He has made the prince, Topher (short for Christopher and about middle six names), into a naïve youth who transforms before our eyes into a benevolent leader and all-around nice guy.  The changes work well, adding some mild intrigue.

The score includes such favorites as “In My Own Little Corner of the World,” “Impossible,” “It’s Possible,” “A Lovely Night,” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful,” and “There’s Music In You.”

There has also been some adding of Rogers and Hammerstein songs that never made it into any of the duo’s original script, but remained for future use.  The future has arrived and the score has been enhanced with “Me, Who Am I,” “Loneliest of Evening,” The Pursuit,” and “Now Is the Time.”

The production, under the creative direction of Mark Brokaw, with choreography by Josh Rhodes, is full of visual enjoyment.  Images transform the stage into a forest, complete with puppet animals, the prince riding on a great steed, and a golden coach with prancing horses.  There’s  Cinderella’s house and the palace with the stairs on which the glass slipper is lost.

Costume illusions dazzle the imagination.  (One little girl, after Cinderella’s simple frock transformed into a beautiful ball gown, squealed, “How did that happen?  It’s magic!”  It was a question and answer that many adults probably thought but were too inhibited to voice their wonderment.

The cast is universally appealing.  Laura Osnes (Cinderella) was seen on Broadway as the female lead in BONNIE AND CLYDE and ANYTHING GOES.  She looks like a princess, sings like a Broadway star, and has all the qualities to not only entrance a prince, but an audience.

Santino Fontana as Toper (the prince) isn’t the typical tall, dark and handsome Broadway star.  What he is, is a charmer with a great singing voice, and the acting skills to make for a believable naïve spoiled young man, thrust into the role of being a king to be, who transforms into a benevolent monarch, with the aid of a wise woman and a rabble-rousing do-gooder.  His duets with Osnes are show highlights.

Ann Harada, known to TV audiences for her continuing role in SMASH, adds laugh-delight as Charlotte, the prince-lusting evil step sister.

Both Greg Hildreth, as Jean-Michel, the do-good campaigner, and Marla Mindelle (Gabrielle) his lady love and nice step-sister, well develop their roles. Hildreth’s “Now Is the Time,” adds the show’s political heart.

Peter Bartlett, makes for a gentle evil-guy as Sebastian. He’s nasty, but not enough to scare the kiddies.

Victoria Clark creates Marie, the itinerant woodland wanderer turned fairy godmother, into a charming character.  She has a lovely singing voice and strong stage presence.  Harriet Harris uses farcical humor to create Madam as a less than fearsome wicked step-mother.

The beautiful and very hummable score is well played by the large pit orchestra.

Clevelanders will be pleased to see that The Araca Group, composed of hometown boys Matthew Rego, Michael Rego and Hank Unger are among the producers of CINDERELLA, adding to their other hits which include WICKED, ROCK OF AGES, and URINETOWN.

Capsule judgement:  The first-ever Broadway staging of Rogers and Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA is delightful.  No, this isn’t a great musical, but it will offend no one, delight many, and just the names Roger and Hammerstein and CINDERELLA will insure a long run, road shows, and lots of tiara sales.

ROGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA is in an open-ended run at The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street.