Watch out, “Wicked” witches, here comes “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” a heavyweight contender for those precious audiences of little girls who attend the theater in princess gowns and glittery tiaras — faithful theatergoers who make regular pilgrimages to their beloved shows and get their mothers to buy them lotsa stuff at intermission. Stage treatments of this classic 1957 made-for-TV musical starring Julie Andrews are common enough. But with additional songs and a witty new adaptation by Douglas Carter Beane, this show counts as a legit Broadway premiere.
Reassurances first: “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful,” “In My Own Little Corner,” and other beloved songs from the original show are here, in clarion-clear arrangements by David Chase and full-throated orchestrations by Danny Troob, and played by a great big old-fashioned pit orchestra directed by Andy Einhorn.
Neither have the creatives lost their minds and cut corners on the design elements that only Broadway can deliver in a big way. You want magic? Wait until you see Cinderella (here called Ella and played by Laura Osnes) being transformed for the ball. You want levitation? Hold your breath for the entrance of the fairy godmother (a crazy lady known as Marie and played by Victoria Clark).
Anna Louizos’ set for the palace ball at which Ella meets her Prince (played by Santino Fontana) is actually kind of classy, streamlined to accommodate choreographer Josh Rhodes’ twirling waltzes and galloping gavottes. The deep forest is a much more mysterious place, lighted in blue-black shadow by Kenneth Posner and pulsing with strange sounds by Nevin Steinberg.
If there’s a theme to William Ivey Long’s costumes, it’s “Let’s break the bank and go crazy.” From afar, the elaborate ball gowns are a mass of color in a swirl of movement. Apart from Ella’s drop-dead wedding gown and Marie’s out-of-this-world lavender number, there are no pallid pastels in this intense color palette. As with the many shades of magenta worn by wicked stepmother Madame and her daughters, these frocks have humor and bite. On closer view, all the costly details emerge: the gold-shot fabrics, the trimmed petticoats and deep cut-outs, the heavy beading and intricate embroidery — and above all, the side-hoop skirts, which function like pinatas.
Helmer Mark Brokaw, best known in New York for straight plays but also the artistic director of the Yale Institute for Music Theater, has cast this show shrewdly, with actors who can sing, get their laughs, and in one crucial case especially, even dance.
That triple threat is Osnes, the brave little trouper who made “Bonnie & Clyde” bearable. While her light soprano gives sweet voice to Ella, Osnes’ acting chops and dancing skills make her as lovely to watch as she is to listen to.
As her Prince (here called Topher), Fontana may not be as dashing as the dragon slayer of fairy-tale legend, but he’s certainly cute and funny — and limber enough to sing and move and look charming at the same time, an impossible task for many a leading man.
Our touchstones are those thesps with outstanding voices, like the big-chested Phumzile Sojola as the loyal palace functionary, Lord Pinkleton. As Marie, Clark is the flying favorite of the house, an eccentric fairy godmother whose droll promises to make dreams come true are delivered in a soprano voice of piercing beauty.
The cheeky humor of Beane’s book comes from imposing modern sensibilities (and contemporary lingo) on timeless storybook figures. It’s great fun to watch Peter Bartlett vamp it up as Sebastian, the perfidious Lord Protector who chides the Prince for striving to make something nobler of his life. (“Worrying about that self-worth again?”)
In the same sarcastic vein, Harriet Harris is irresistibly funny as Madame, so determined that one of her plain daughters marry royalty and elevate the family social status. (“We are teetering precariously between upper-middle class and lower-upper class.”) But aside from constantly reminding Ella that she isn’t her “real” daughter, Madame isn’t much of a taskmaster.
Ella’s two stepsisters aren’t particularly unkind to her, either. In a hoot of a perf from Ann Harada (and a hilarious wig by Paul Huntley), the plain and pudgy Charlotte is too self-absorbed even to take much notice of her. And Gabrielle (Maria Mindelle, very nice) is such a kind soul that Beane gives her a made-up suitor, Jean-Paul (Greg Hildreth), a revolutionary firebrand who works socially correct themes into the plot. (He courts her by inviting her to dish out food at a soup kitchen.)
But all these clever alterations radically change the story we all grew with, the tale about how true love rescues a callously mistreated girl from persecution. Because the evil stepmother and stepsisters are no longer cruel or threatening, our fairytale Cinderella is no longer a despised outcast, the unhappy victim of her sad circumstances.
For that matter, Ella is no longer even the hero of her own fairytale. By introducing all those politically correct social issues, Beane has effectively shifted the focus of the story to the Prince, who has fallen down on the job of governing his kingdom. Key trunk songs added to the show (and given new lyrics by Beane and Chase) either build up Topher’s character (“Me, Who Am I?”) or define the challenges he faces in cleaning up the rampant political corruption in his court (“Now Is the Time”).
Although Ella does make a brief appearance in the prologue set in the woods, the show really opens at the castle, with a new song for Topher. “I just don’t even know who I am yet,” he says, before launching into his existential cri de Coeur “Me, Who Am I?” As Topher’s prize for being a good prince, Cinderella has become a secondary character in a story about a guy who mans up and resolves his identity crisis.