Where do you go after you’ve seen “Wicked”? That worldwide smash has built a vast young audience hungry for stories propelled by power ballads of female empowerment, and it’s clearly that crowd that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s much-delayed new musical version of “Cinderella” is eager to please. With actor/singer and internet sensation Carrie Hope Fletcher wholly energizing the new-wine-in-old-bottles story of a self-assured heroine defiantly refusing to fit in with the fairytale world that despises her, he’s halfway there. But the ride he’s written for her with Oscar-winning screenwriter Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) is seriously bumpy.
Our heroine, the black-lipsticked and goth-laced “Bad Cinderella” (as she’s called in the punchy, calling-card number that leads the overture and is reprised on umpteen occasions) lives in Belleville, which, according to lyricist David Zippel, is “a town so picturesque/ every other seems grotesque.” The rest of the population consists of under-dressed men who are buff and manly, and over-dressed women who are blonde and perfect. Not for nothing is the arch, opening scene-setter entitled “Buns’n’Roses.”
But things swiftly go awry when it’s revealed that Cinderella has defaced the new statue, which causes Belleville to lose its crown as “Most Attractive Town.” The waspish Queen – played by Rebecca Trehearn, whose deliciously withering grandeur would give Marie Antoinette pause — is not, to put it mildly, pleased. In part, that’s because the statue is of her dead son Prince Charming. To fill the coffers, she whips up a royal wedding complete with a ball, at which a wife will be chosen for her hapless and, in her eyes, hopeless second son, Prince Sebastian (young Ivano Turco in his West End debut.)
Unhappy about this, Sebastian confides in his best friend — who is, natch, Cinderella. And for most of the otherwise predictable first act, everything sticks fairly closely to the standard one-girl-against-the-world plot, peppered by Fennell with faintly dated nods to what used to be called “girl power.” The difference is that Cinderella realizes that she’s is in love with Sebastian. She must get to the ball to marry him before anyone else can.
At which point, after a mix of everything from comic one-liner put-downs to adult-pleasing double-entendres, there’s one of the show’s many tonal lurches when Cinderella finds herself in a cross between a bridal shop and an icy operating theater, presided over by a stalking, Grace Jones-like Godmother (Gloria Onitri, in perilous heels and a voice of doom) who promises her perfect beauty via temporary plastic surgery. For reasons never properly explained, after inveighing against superficiality, Cinderella goes along with it.
Released from the standard fairy-tale plot, the more involving second act goes up a dramatic notch at the ball where Cinderella and Sebastian have a row, after which events take several turns for the unpredictable. But with a vital key character introduced very late, just at the point at which you wish the show and the score would let rip for its climax, several chunks of exposition appear with Fennell’s book bogged down in perilously drawn-out false endings and resolutions.
On the plus side, the show is often fun, with a welcome comic bounce almost entirely absent from Lloyd Webber’s work after “Starlight Express” in 1984 until “School of Rock” in 2015. Costume designer Gabriela Tylesova has a serious budget and an absolute field day with the sisters (sneering Georgina Castle and Laura Baldwin), and with the succession of ravishingly preposterous costumes and millinery for the stepmother. Detonating every second of her stage time, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, her body viciously, comically skewed, leaves standard Cruella de Vil antics standing. Instead she kills the audience with constantly surprising line-readings like Zsa-Zsa Gabor crossed with Alan Rickman via Sean Connery’s consonants. Her tart, French-style duet with Trehearn, like a wonderfully mean-spirited revamp of Lerner and Loewe’s “I Remember It Well” from “Gigi,” is the score’s comedy highlight.
With no-holds-barred, on-the-money vocals, Fletcher has the lion’s share of the best numbers. She’s alive to the teen-queen power of the Phil Spector, wall-of-sound-like “I Know I Have A Heart” (because you broke it) and touchingly sincere in beguilingly gentle ballad “Far Too Late.” But director Laurence Connor has not managed to curb Lloyd Webber’s earnestness. Was it really necessary that, at the point of her dreams collapsing, Cinderella should reprise not one, not two, but three of her big numbers in what amounts to a shameless lovestruck megamix?
Connor’s four-square staging is also not helped by choreography that almost always feels symmetrical. The numbers have plenty of well-executed moves but only express a single intention, never building in excitement.
From the book’s adult nods to its wannabe young girl’s guide to feminism, the show entertains moment by moment but rarely adds up. If, for example, Sebastian is supposed to be a non-starter physically, how come he is revealed to be the best dancer?
Its mixed messages are exemplified by Tylesova’s sets. Ignoring lyrics that talk of everyone living in “in Plexiglass houses,” she presents Belleville in folding fairytale cut-outs which, charming in themselves, look peculiar against a permanent, metallic-looking backdrop that gives off the aura of a contemporary sculpture screensaver.
As with all good versions of the story, Tylsevova creates a defining transformation. Unfortunately, it’s not Cinderella who is transformed, it’s the seating. As famously happened with the original incarnation of the composer’s “Cats” at this venue, at the start of the ball scene, the front seating block begins to move round, turning a proscenium-style theatre into an in-the-round space. The effect, aided by lighting designer Bruno Poet’s multiple star-effect lights, is dazzling. But when that’s close to the evening’s most dramatic effect, questions need to be asked. Chief among them: Since this show is so knowing, what is it that it actually knows?