A modern reworking of fairy tale “Cinderella” from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe — whose credits include the Olivier award-winning “Honk,” last year’s acclaimed “Betty Blue Eyes” and the extra songs for “Mary Poppins” — “Soho Cinders” has had a long gestation, with first work done in 2000. It’s emerged as a strange combination of pantomime and musical and works much better in the former mode.
The show is set on Old Compton Street — the center of London’s gay scene and only a few minutes down the road from the Soho Theater. Morgan Large’s attractive set (one huge road sign) and Stiles’ opening number set the scene as a kind of camp Skid Row. It’s a street with a seedy side — as represented by Ugly Sisters/strip club owners Clodagh (Suzie Chard) and Dana (Beverly Rudd) — but a street full of dreamers too.
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Such a dreamer is our Cinderella, Robbie, the rent boy who’s paying his way through college and really wants to live a normal life in the suburbs (“Wishing for the Normal,” a blatant retake on “Somewhere That’s Green” from “Little Shop of Horrors”).
Of course, college fees can be paid through loans, and Robbie appears to have shelter and means of income through possession of his dead mother’s launderette. So he’s an unconvincing prostitute — and Tom Milner’s wide-eyed performance doesn’t help.
As James Prince, the public-spirited mayoral candidate who has fallen for Robbie, Michael Xavier is charismatic and clean-cut. But he’s barely onstage with his love interest, and their song (“Gypsies of the Ether”) sounds like a Lionel Ritchie castoff. They’re hard to back, particularly when Xavier and Jenna Russell (as Prince’s fiancee) get the best love song in a show where Stiles’ music is on patchy form.
But while the love story chugs along unconvincingly, several Fairy Godmothers save the day. Rudd and Chard are a delight as the Ugly Sisters, with big numbers in each half that show Drewe at his lyrical best. Similarly, Gerard Carey as bad-guy spin doctor William George is dastardly and great fun. All their major songs are backed up by exuberant stuff from the chorus, eight strong and always engaging. The five-piece band, under Stephen Ridley, is cracking.
The main plot seems satirical and even gritty, and the book asks us to take the characters seriously despite the gaps in credulity and the barely integrated songs. It’s a case of two competing shows — when the tone is broad and brash, the action zings. When it requires any emotional realism, it clunks and fails to find its footing.