Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rodger + Hammerstein's Cinderella




What does a girl need to do for a little attention? In the new version of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, it takes dazzling stage effects, the possibility of revolution, and a costume change worthy of Penn & Teller to retell this frothy fairytale. All that hoopla often relegates the future princess and peasant-with-a-heart-of-gold to a co-star in her own show.

Laura Osnes proves that reality television (“Grease: You're the One that I Want”) can occasionally produce star material as she tackles her fifth Broadway lead (most recently in the short-lived Bonnie and Clyde). With a sweet, clear soprano she finds the delight in songs such as “A Lovely Night.” While Cinderella or “Ella,” as she’s called in the new book by Douglas Carter Beane (Xanadu), maintains some similarities with versions of princesses past, this girl embraces more integrity and self-possession: She hands the prince her glass-spun shoe before the midnight departure. She lectures him on creating laws that hurt his people. But empowerment only goes so far—Ella still needs that fairy god mother to jumpstart her pauper to princess makeover—and she still remains an indentured servant to her step-family until royal marriage frees her.

Cinderella (Laura Osnes) and her Prince (Santino Fontana) dance at the ball.
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
A confused Prince Topher (Santino Fontana) often upstages our heroine, with the musical’s beginning focusing more on his life crisis than Ella’s woes. It seems that he’s just not happy doing prince things, such as battling dragons, or in this case a giant tree creature that looks like an escapee from The Lord of the Rings, and questions his identity in a new song by Beane and David Chase (music supervisor/arranger), “Me, Who Am I.” The fledgling prince looks for reassurance from his adviser, the Rasputin wannabe Sebastian (Peter Bartlett), who tells him a royal romance solves all problems. What Sebastian really wants, though, is a distracted populace that won’t question the unfair taxes he’s administered.  Ella, coached by her stepsister’s revolutionist boyfriend Jean-Michel (Greg Hildreth) about the realms’ evil ways, convinces the prince to take responsibility for his own kingdom (shades of the 1998 Cinderella-inspired movie Ever After) while waltzing flawlessly around the ballroom. Faced with beauty and conviction, Prince Topher falls in love.

Rodgers and Hammerstein created Cinderella as a vehicle for television, and the musical aired in 1957 starring Julie Andrews as the title character. Another version aired in 1965, featuring Lesley Ann Warren, and Brandy and Whitney Houston played Cinderella and the fairy godmother in the 1997 remake. All versions tried to make the story their own and the show has a history of changing songs. So the revisions in the current production, such as removing the King and Queen characters and replacing them with Sebastian, aren’t unusual; I’m just not sure it makes the show any stronger. The best songs still are the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, such as  “In My Own Little Corner,” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful,” “Impossible; It’s Possible,” and “When You’re Driving Through the Moonlight.”

While this politically correct/self-empowerment version embraces contemporary ideology, it often seems forced and unnecessary, and the songs championing the new perspective (Jean-Michel’s “Now Is the Time,” sung as a solo and then as a duet with Gabrielle) may evolve the revolutionary plotline but not the charm of the musical.  With recent movies like Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror also presenting fairytale heroines as confident, self-realized individuals, albeit actresses Kristen Stewart and Lily Collins inhabit new-improved Snow Whites rather than Cinderella, the concept feels redundant.

The show, as directed by Mark Brokaw, often offers a Barnum & Bailey mentally: here’s the best show on earth. Look, in a dress twirl, Ella transforms her peasant outfit into a sparkly white ball gown, exchanging her kerchief for a crown. It’s thrilling … and Cinderella does the magic costume switch twice. The fairy godmother (a vocally impressive Victoria Clark) also transforms from crazy bag lady Marie into an enchanted creature in a lavender ball gown that not only makes Cinderella over, but also changes her friendly hand puppet fox and raccoon friends into human attendants. Also, a wow factor. If this isn't enough, she flies as well, dramatically soaring over the stage like Mary Poppins, only without the umbrella. All of William Ivey Long’s costumes support the fantasy and the finale-wedding gown offers the confectionery sumptuousness that a princess should expect. Choreographer Josh Rhodes’ gavottes and waltzes keep the ball active and elegant--yup, it's a three-ring extravaganza.

Some of the secondary even characters offer sideline entertainment: Stepsister Gabrielle (Marla Mindelle) makes a sympathetic stepsister who comes to Ella’s aid. Ann Harada as stepsister Charlotte is so self-absorbed she doesn’t even recognize the Prince at the ball, and she literally throws a fun-to-watch tantrum of disappointment in “Stepsister’s Lament.”  The shrewd, social-climbing Stepmother, played by Harriet Harris, who continually reminds Ella she is not her daughter, provides several chuckles. Ultimately, though, for a show about magic and romance, this Cinderella offers lots of spectacle but little enchantment. 

(purchased ticket, rear mezzanine right)

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