Theater lets viewers see behind the scenes

As the economy struggles with recession, what price theater? Well, £61 million ($95 million), since you ask. That’s the cost of the spanking new steel and glass Curve, the recently opened regional theater in Leicester.

As its name suggests, the building is oval-shaped. In the middle is an 800-seat mainstage backing onto a 400-seat studio with an acoustic dividing wall that can be flown out to create one giant space. Completely surrounding them are extensive, full-height public areas.

The building is a testament to Rafael Vinoly Architects’ “inside-out” principle. Not only can people outside see through glass walls into every activity in the building, but areas traditionally hidden from view — like backstage — are also on display. Actors are even encouraged to move from the dressing rooms to the stage in view of anyone who happens to be outside the auditorium.

Mindful, perhaps, of other regional theaters that have recently reopened with challenging fare, artistic director Paul Kerryson smartly chose to launch the Curve with an entertainment aimed at the widest possible audience: the new musical “Simply Cinderella.”

The trouble with writing a new show with the word “Cinderella” in the title, however, is that audiences looking for family entertainment not only expect it to be ideal for anyone over the age of 3, but also want it to stick to tradition. The former requirement can lead to overly simple storytelling, with the audience way ahead of the action, while the latter militates against adventurousness.

Yet while “Simply Cinderella” refutes the second charge with a welcome tartness to its sensibility, the time-traveling revamp — Toby Davies‘ book transports Cinderella to a magical 1940s to meet her singing prince — has major structural flaws.

The gap in time means their love cannot survive, so out goes the expected ending. In its place is a closing sequence not a million miles from “The Pajama Game,” in which factory worker Cinderella invents a magic shoe that saves the day. But, alas, the two major factory sequences play like bookends rather than being integral to the plot.

Grant Olding‘s music is notably spry — his dance-band pastiche “The Champagne Slip” is an infectious winner — and it’s a pleasure to hear such felicitous lyrics. Sadly, his material suffers in Adam Cooper‘s patchy production, which lacks both energy and momentum. Thanks to imprecise lighting, more time is spent noticing just how dauntingly high and wide the Curve’s vast open stage is, rather than concentrating on what’s happening on it.

Cooper’s less-than-dramatic choreography is also on display in Lindsay Posner‘s limp West End revival of “Carousel.”

When Nicholas Hytner collected the 1993 Olivier award for his direction of the celebrated National Theater revival that traveled to Lincoln Center, he observed, “I just directed the subtext.” Which is exactly what’s missing from this depressingly two-dimensional presentation. Audiences always cry at “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” but they (as well as Rodgers & Hammerstein) deserve far more than this flatly designed, under-dramatized effort.

Only Alexandra Silber‘s Julie Jordan has the measure of the work. With her dark-hued voice recalling the heartfelt throb of Audra McDonald, Silber has enormously affecting sincerity. Unfortunately, she’s surrounded by cardboard performances from the rest of Posner’s cast. Many have strong voices, but because they don’t rise beyond antique musical-theater stereotype, you’d never guess they were handling one of the most subtly dark books in the genre’s history.

Lesley Garrett‘s patronizing Nettie is the worst offender. She occasionally beams at or chucks the cheek of a chorus member but doesn’t appear either to listen to or care for anyone onstage: She flirts with the audience and plays everything out front as if she’s in concert.

Meanwhile, Maria Friedman actually is in concert in “Maria Friedman Re-Arranged” at the Trafalgar Studios. Her performances of material by everyone from Randy Newman to Stephen Sondheim are so complete and communicative that, for once, the cliche about great songs being like perfect short stories comes thrillingly to life.

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