By Lynn Venhaus
This is not your grandmother’s “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” Nor does it resemble The Muny’s six other “Cinderella” presentations, the last one in 2003 (There was a “Cinderella on Ice” in ‘90!?!) Nor is it the first time the 400-year-old rags-to-riches romance has been reworked to suit the times.
A thoroughly modern girl empowerment theme has been swirled into the traditional fairy-tale fantasy for this hybrid update of a story that has enchanted for more than four centuries. Ella earns her own happily-ever-after, 21st century style.
First produced on Broadway in 2013, this new spin has been dipped in Muny magic for razzle-dazzle costume changes and an electric horse-drawn carriage but struggles to find its tone without all the traditional accoutrements.
Not to be stuck in the past – childhood memories have such a stronghold! — but I want the lavish breath-taking ballgown reveal. Did you see that stunning blue creation a radiant Lily James wore in Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 Disney live-action movie remake? That is what I call an entrance. That makes a statement. It means “Cinderella.” So does finery, fluff, folderol and fiddle dee-dee. The humor is a big part of this reboot, but I want the royal regalia too. This takes a different path.
Of course, I’m on board with a “Believe in Yourself” and be authentic message, and emphasizing girls can go anywhere and do anything. Who wouldn’t be? But you can have that Girl Power message and want to break glass ceilings yet still keep the girly glitz – that is the definition of feminism, after all.
I mean, taken in context, those real-life duchesses Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle are the epitome of modern women but can look ravishing as royals.
I’m not sure what the creative team’s vision was here, using a whimsical hodge-podge of cartoon-like characters straight from contemporary storybook pages, with only a smidgeon of the elegance we customarily associate with this tale.
The production is splashed with bold vivid colors reminiscent of the Capitol denizens in “The Hunger Games” and nearly every imaginative Tim Burton comedy, shades of Beetlejuice meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The costume party takes some getting used to, particularly when the huge Muny stage has often been gussied up for royal affairs, but instead has an unusual red-and-black palace motif with little ornamentation. Banners with a symbol looking like the late singer Prince’s ‘logo’ (you know, the one he used when he was “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”) are on display. Hmmm… The twin staircases, however, are a splendid touch of grandeur.
The best part of “Cinderella” will always be that lush original score by composer Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II that was written for the 1957 telecast starring a then-unknown Julie Andrews. The 10-year-old me fell in love with that music while watching the 1965 TV version with Lesley Ann Warren and Stuart Damon. Others consider the 1997 TV-movie with Brandy and Whitney Houston their touchstone. That’s a lot of popular entertainment to live up to, not to mention the 1950 Disney animated feature and other variations. (Drew Barrymore’s “Ever After,” anyone?)
With the Muny cast’s exquisite voices singing those familiar tunes, it is as hummable as anything in “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma.”
Fan favorite Jason Gotay and newcomer Mikaela Bennett are adorable together as Prince Topher and Ella, providing clear and velvety-smooth renditions of such romantic ballads as “Ten Minutes Ago,” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” and “Loneliness of the Evening.”
His boyish charm made the aimless prince likable and her sunny disposition helped make her case. Gotay, Prince Eric in “The Little Mermaid” two years ago and Jack in “Into the Woods,” is a winning presence. Bennett conveys Ella’s likable qualities – good and kind, but also is thirsty for knowledge and dreaming of a whole new world, new path and new possibilities.
Another Muny favorite with a satiny soprano, Ashley Brown, is a confident and wise Fairy Godmother, aka beggar woman Marie. She captivated with the bouncy numbers “Folderol,” “Impossible” and “It’s Possible,” and brought the house down with “The Music’s in You.”
The ageless numbers are as sweet as they are sentimental, and music director Greg Anthony Rassen, who conducted the Broadway production, treats them with respect. David Chase adapted and arranged the music, with orchestrations by Danny Troob.
The costumes by Robin L. McGee and the set by Paige Hathaway seem coordinated by design with their bright exaggerated look, combining brilliant hues of lime green and violet, yellow and red, blue and orange, and others. The knights, pages and heralds are outfitted in tailored red and black variations. These are all fashion-forward designs that could have been seen in “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Wiz” or “Wicked,” but don’t really shout “Cinderella.”
Kaitlyn A. Adams designed the outlandish wigs that could either have been ripped off Effie Trinket’s (Elizabeth Banks) head in the Capitol or on a Nickelodeon show, and her work is eye-popping for what it is.
Nevertheless, I am puzzled by the decision to keep Ella’s long locks flowing instead of sweeping up into a more formal ‘do for the palace invitationals. It’s too casual.
Nathan W. Scheuer’s video work is very integral to the story’s cohesiveness. We see Prince Topher slay a giant, although the execution of cast movement may not have been in sync opening night. The LED screens are being used in more inventive ways, expanding the storytelling capabilities on stage. Rob Denton’s lighting design is again stellar.
One of the most notable changes, mentioned earlier, is that Ella is more real girl than princess-wannabe, and her outfits are not as sophisticated as one expects — more like summer garden party attire instead of opulent couture. However, when she spins from rags to evening wear, it defies logic and gets applause. And the wedding finery is lovely.
Ella’s merry mix of woodland creature friends – foxes, raccoons and mice — are puppet designs created by Eric Wright of Puppet Kitchen International, Inc. He collaborated with McGee on Dodge’s “The Little Mermaid,” which won Best Costume Design from the St. Louis Theater Circle. The agile helpers go through quite a workout keeping up the pace.
Hammerstein’s book, based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale adapted from Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon” story written 400 years ago, has been deconstructed further by Dodge and company, departing a tad from the national tour in 2015.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane established new characters to provide twists to the fractured fairy tale. The prince’s parents are deceased, and his life is controlled by a regent, Sebastian, who has his own agenda. The evil Machiavellian minister has carried out cruelty across the kingdom. However, John Scherer, usually so good as a comical sidekick, needs to be more cunning and calculated, instead of a frazzled caricature tossing off funny quips. We are to see his motives and not supposed to like him.
When he wrote the book for Broadway, Beane beefed up the wit of the supporting players and the smarts of the leads for his millennial take, with a call to action social justice subplot and a heavy injection of snark.
Chad Burris is humorous as the nerdy revolutionary Jean-Michel, who has a crush on Gabrielle, Ella’s gawky sister who’s not so much a mean girl as she is blindly following her mother’s orders. He pairs well with Stephanie Gibson, who originated the role on Broadway and has appeared at the Muny 12 times before. She’s endearing as an awakened activist and Ella ally.
The live-wire Jennifer Cody is the other stepsister, Charlotte, self-centered, shallow and spoiled, shaped in the toxic environment of her despicable mother, Madame (a cutthroat and demanding Alison Fraser).
The Muny veteran who has played everything from the grandmother in “The Addams Family” to a stripper in “Gypsy,” Cody knows how to get a laugh. It’s fun to watch her try to gain the prince’s attention. She’s terrific in the snotty “The Stepsister’s Lament.”
No demure and dainty lasses, these girls. They do have a nice interaction in “Lovely Night.”
With his commanding presence and strong vocals, Victor Ryan Robertson is noteworthy in his number “Eight O’Clock and All Is Well” as Lord Pinkleton.
Dodge, who helmed the shimmering and magical spectacle “The Little Mermaid” in 2017, is a very sharp and precise director, who makes sure every movement has a purpose. However, I don’t understand the ‘clumps’ of people lumped together for some musical numbers and crowd scenes.
Nor the decision to not go bigger. Risky move. I think traditionalists have a hard time wrapping their head around it, and kids are just confused.
Choreographer Josh Walden has fashioned a delightfully bouncy ‘The Prince Is Giving a Ball” and enlivened the “Gavotte” with a crispness that is distinctive to his work.
A ballroom waltz scene could have been more luxurious, thus boosting the enchantment factor sorely needed here. (See Tony Awards 2013, medley from “Cinderella,” with gorgeous gowns gliding in sync. There is a reason William Ivey Long won Best Costume Design, the show’s only award out of nine nominations.)
Because the original telecast was only 90 minutes, expanding it for a two-hour stage musical feels padded, especially the draggy second act when all the wee ones are tired. They need to cut to the chase, as the prince frantically searches for his “destiny.” We all know this story. Let’s get a move on.
With its timeless tale of an underdog triumphing in finding true romance, “Cinderella” shows that missions are possible. It’s a multi-generational crowd-pleaser that can withstand a little tinkering, but some things are sacred and better left alone.
“Cinderella” is being performed at the Muny July 8-16. For more information, visit www.muny.org.