Classics never die: they get a reboot. This is true of jeans, vinyl records, sports cars and of course, fairy tales. In every country, almost every child has heard the story of Cinderella – an oppressed orphan girl who captures the heart of a prince through a bit of magic.
American playwright Douglas Carter Beane takes the basic shell of this classic, etches out character personalities, injects a few modern themes and marries the new book with Rodgers + Hammerstein’s captivating music. The result is a musical Cinderella for the 21st century.
Although most of the reworked material seems contrived, the heart of the tale thrives and this Broadway Across America production is a feast for both eyes and ears.
In Beane’s version, the heroine is simply named Ella. Played by the lovely, silver-tongued Tatyana Lubov, Ella is a kind, graceful and socially-conscious orphan abused by her selfish stepmother.
Lubov is radiant in this role, eliciting empathy when she dreams of adventures beyond her world or exuding tender confidence when encouraging her prince. Unlike the original story, Ella is not a victim in this rendition. She has an opinion that she will voice. She doesn’t lose her glass slipper but lets it go to secure her future.
While the classic tale focuses on the amiable Cinderella, little is known about the prince. Dubbing this character Topher (short for Christopher), Beane gives shape, background and substance to his personality. Prince Topher is an aimless and goofy young man before meeting Ella. Himself an orphan, he’s oppressed by his regent, Sebastian — although he doesn’t recognize his own golden cage.
Hayden Stanes portrays an impeccably dreamy prince with a golden voice and heart, mixing a disarming amount of clutz and charm into the role. Not until the end of the show does the audience realize that while Ella gets an outward physical makeover, Prince Topher has undergone an inward psychological one.
[Leslie Jackson and Tatyana Lubov in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella]
Leslie Jackson is sweet and whimsical as Crazy Marie until she reveals herself as the Fairy Godmother, her soaring soprano voice enrapturing the audience. Sarah Primmer plays the manipulative stepmother that audiences love to hate while Joanna Johnson portrays the silly, self-centered stepdaughter, Charlotte.
Neither character is ever quite as cruel or as dangerous as in the Disney version. Beane’s rendition contrasts the other stepdaughter, Gabrielle, as more ditzy than mean. Mimi Robinson’s character is a lovable, simple-minded young lady, probably bullied by both her mother and sister.
While the flawlessly selected cast dance deftly and sing superbly, the richly detailed costumes (William Ivey Long) and gorgeous set designs (Anna Louizos) are the absolute highlights of the show. Ella’s instantaneous gown transformations are astonishing to behold. Ethereal, opulent sets materialize and morph imperceptibly as characters dance across the stage. These breathtaking changeovers present a convincing case that magic does indeed exist.
In a fairy tale, anything can happen. However, themes of social justice and equality introduced in Beane’s re-imagined plot seem out of place in this classic story and aren’t deeply explored.
Romance is knocked out of the second act as Ella encourages Topher to be a better monarch. The language and songs are straightforward. There’s no hidden topics or double meanings, unlike most other Broadway musicals. This is, after all, a production appealing to children.
At last the prince has an aspiration he can cling to. The scenes feel contrived and laboured even with the injection of a second romance between Gabrielle and her well-intentioned social activist beau, Jean-Michel, played by a comedic Chris Woods.
The primary purpose for the revamp may have been to modernize the narrative and bring relevancy to a generation wanting change and empowerment. An incredible fantasy about an individual finding love and kindness is broadened into an entire kingdom finding the same. Improbable or impossible, even for a fairy tale?
[Mimi Robinson and Chris Woods in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella]
Once the storyline moves past these awkward humps, the audience is regaled by the glamour and romance they’ve come to watch. The royal wedding is well worth the wait. Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella continues at the Queen E Theatre through April 16. Aside from a few additions that smack of reality, this show is an enchanted escape for the young and the young at heart.
All photos © Carol Rosegg.