Mar 3, 2013
Given Hollywood’s determination of late to homogenize the entire classic fairy-tale canon into one long, dour CGI battle saga, it’s a relief to see a show that softens its revisionist impulses within a warm embrace of sugar-frosted tradition. Reworked for Broadway from its bones as an original 1957 television musical, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella gets off to a halting start and takes some questionable detours. But this pleasurable confection overcomes its conceptual missteps with old-fashioned stagecraft, enchanting design elements, smooth direction and choreography, and most of all, winning contributions from an ideally cast ensemble.
A robust performer in previews, the production has been logging repeat weekly grosses north of $1 million. Those pre-opening figures are relatively uncommon for a show without major stars, indicating that there’s room in the Broadway marketplace for another family-friendly musical. It’s likely to be especially popular with mothers and daughters eager to reconnect with their inner princesses.
Originally commissioned by CBS as a vehicle for Julie Andrews, Cinderella marks the only musical written for television by the legendary team of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/book writer Oscar Hammerstein II. A staggering 107 million viewers watched the 1957 broadcast premiere in the U.S. alone. TV remakes in 1965 (headlining Lesley Ann Warren) and 1997 (starring Brandy and Whitney Houston) were also successful. The show has been retooled for the stage various times, including a London pantomime version and a New York City Opera incarnation. But this marks its first Broadway presentation.
The principal architect of this latest overhaul is Douglas Carter Beane, whose book is paradoxically its shakiest element. Beane’s track record (Xanadu, Lysistrata Jones, Sister Act) made it legitimate to expect something with a satirical edge. The sprinkling of contemporary anachronisms in the dialogue supplies some fresh sass and snark without pushing too hard in a treatment that’s surprisingly traditional on most fronts. But the addition of a half-baked “Democracy for Dummies” subplot grafted onto Cinderella’s world is labored, merely slowing down the story. Thankfully, the classic Charles Perrault tale proves indestructible enough to withstand the meddling.
The quintessential element that the production gets resoundingly right is the chemistry between downtrodden Cinderella (Laura Osnes) and her lovestruck Prince (Santino Fontana), who goes by the shortened form of his unwieldy royal moniker, Topher. But perhaps equally important is the romantic power of the music. Few will rank the songs as top-drawer R&H – whether from the original television presentation or interpolated from other scores. But their buoyant melodiousness in Danny Troob’s shimmering orchestrations is transporting.
Cinderella’s signature number, “In My Own Little Corner,” immediately conveys the resilient sweetness of a girl treated like a slave by her archly scornful stepmother Madame (Harriet Harris). And when the Prince from his throne picks up the song’s refrain of “Just as long as I stay in my own little chair,” it cleverly cements their kinship as dreamers confined by their station. Other musical highpoints include “Impossible,” sung by the Fairy Godmother (Victoria Clark), and the soaring lovers’ duet “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” performed with rapturous gusto by Osnes and Fontana. Without exception, this is a gorgeously sung production.
That makes it easy to forgive the show’s flaws. Beane’s prologue and an early scene establishing Prince Topher as a slayer of monsters, dragons and ogres serve to expand the magical factor beyond the Fairy Godmother’s handiwork. And Anna Louizos’ scenic design is lifted right out of a classic fairy-tale storybook, favoring woodsy settings over the standard cobblestoned kingdom.
As a reinvention strategy, all this is reasonably effective, even if it makes the lumpy early action recall the Shrek musical that played in this same theater a few years back. But Beane’s tinkering slows our access to the story’s heroine. It’s not until the Fairy Godmother transforms Cinderella, her coach, horses and coachmen for the royal ball – a bewitching sequence executed with refreshing low-tech resourcefulness by Louizos, costumer William Ivey Long and director Mark Brokaw – that the show fully engages with its central character.
The most intrusive intervention is the introduction of political unrest and an election, which panders to an adult audience rather than just letting the story carry us all back to cynicism-free childhood.
The Prince in this version is an orphan whose parents were benevolent rulers. Their kingdom was left in the hands of the scheming Lord Protector, Sebastian (Peter Bartlett), who has been robbing the poor of their lands while the Prince was off at university. Sebastian is counting on the royal heir to keep his head in the clouds. Representing the wronged populace is timid firebrand Jean-Michel (Greg Hildreth), who has caught the eye of Cinderella’s stepsister Gabrielle (Marla Mindelle). She rejects the venal plotting of her mother and dumpy, self-centered sister Charlotte (Ann Harada). But who ever thought Cinderella needed a do-gooder stepsister, especially with the hilarious Harada on hand to steal the scene whenever she’s onstage? (Charlotte’s song, “Stepsister’s Lament,” is a peach.)
Surprisingly, all this needless narrative cargo doesn’t matter in the long run because we are genetically programmed to root for Cinderella and the Prince to live happily ever after. And it’s hard to imagine those iconic figures being inhabited by two more charming, gifted musical-theater actors. Osnes is loveliness personified – the epitome of goodness without being a drip, and Fontana appealingly straddles the divide between gallantry and cluelessness. One of Beane’s sharpest nods to modern sensibilities is to have it be no accident that Cinderella leaves behind her glass slipper. Instead, she strategically removes it during her midnight dash, taking charge of her destiny rather than leaving it to chance.
Clark, who spends half her stagetime in rags as a crazy villager, is a delight as the Fairy Godmother – by turns mischievous, nurturing, nutty and blithely campy when she gets airborne mid-song. (But what’s with those antler-like growths emerging from her hair?) And Harris is in tart form as Cinderella’s morally unencumbered, social-climbing stepmother, “teetering precariously between upper-middle-class and lower-upper-class.”
Louizos’ playful sets deftly blend forest, village and palace, particularly when the impressive marble staircase is rolled out. Those scenic elements also provide a splendid backdrop for choreographer Josh Rhodes’ dance interludes, which add balletic flourishes to the central waltz scene to exquisitely romantic effect. And costumer Long gets to display his mad froufrou skills in some wonderfully over-the-top frocks, particularly for Madame and the stepsisters.
The feeling remains that, much like the glass slipper on all those wannabe princesses, the material is an imperfect fit for Beane’s snappy irreverence. But under the gently guiding hand of director Brokaw, this Cinderella makeover nonetheless has enough magic on tap to deliver crowd-pleasing family entertainment.