Ella Enchanted: The Musical – Childsplay: Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

Despite the popularity of Gail Carson Levine’s 1997 novel, generally speaking, it’s probable that most only know the story of Ella Enchanted because of the 2004 film. If that’s you, then the truth is, you don’t really know Ella Enchanted. Though the film was fun, it was only loosely based on the award-winning Newbery Honor book. The movie took the basis of the story, a retelling of Cinderella with a twist, and went off into its own direction.

Childsplay’s new holiday production of Levine’s novel, Ella Enchanted: The Musical, now playing at Herberger Theater Center’s main stage until December 30, is a mostly faithful adaptation of the funny original story. Karen Zacarias’ script streamlines certain events and removes the family’s secret fairy godmother Mandy altogether, but generally this new bright and fast-moving production sticks close to its source material.

Ella is born into a happy family but can’t stop crying. In order to keep her quiet, her ditsy and somewhat dimwitted fairy godmother Lucinda (Trisha Hart Ditsworth) gives the child the gift of eternal obedience. Whatever she’s told to do, she does, without question. If she tries to resist, she gets nauseous, even dizzy. The spell works wonders when the baby is told to stop crying, but what started as a gift will eventually become a curse. Not that Lucinda sees it that way. “Think of her future husband and how pleased he’ll be,” the not-too-bright fairy announces. The problem with Lucinda is she knows nothing of consequences; she’s never walked in another person’s shoes. She will, but that’s for later.

Like Cinders, there’s a prince, here called Prince Charmont (Vinny Chavez), which is as close to the French version of Prince Charming as you can get. There’s also a ball, a missing slipper, and a wicked stepmother, along with a couple of ill-mannered daughters.

When Ella’s mother (Katie McFadzen) passes away and her father (Beau Heckman) remarries, Ella’s new stepmother (again, Katie) and her two scheming daughters, the take-charge Hattie (Savannah Alfred) and the generally clueless Olive (Kat Bailes) boss Ella around, relegating the teenager (Michelle Chin) to the lowest position on the family totem pole. What’s worse, the young girl is sent off to finishing school where Hattie and Olive, forced to go with her, discover Ella’s secret of having to obey any and all commands. “Shouldn’t we go to starting school first?” asks a perpetually confused Olive.

Unlike the classic French story, Levine’s telling also has giants, dragons, ogres, and an off-beat sense of present-day humor. When it’s suggested that his daughter’s future husband should be her equal and a friend, her father asks, “What kind of husband is that?” And when it comes to the subject of the missing slipper Ella accidentally leaves after the ball, the prince asks with an incredulous expression, “Why would anyone marry someone because of a shoe?”

Plus, this being Childsplay, there are plenty of themes incorporated into the telling that can inspire interesting conversations with the family on the drive home after the show, including free will, unfair teasing and its consequences, making your own choices, knowing what it’s like when seeing things from a different point-of-view, and the benefit of learning other languages. When Ella finds herself trapped by the ogres, because of having learned their language, she can talk herself out of trouble. “Words are like magic,” she sings as she discovers the power of communicating with others in their native tongue.

Directed by the company’s Artistic Director Dwayne Hartford, with a running time of a brisk 75 minutes without intermission, Ella Enchanted zips along without a moment’s lull, performed by a small cast that convinces you you’re seeing more than there really are.

With the exception of Michelle who maintains her Ella throughout, all other cast members do double duty, often more, not only changing Connie Furr-Soloman’s delightful fairy tale costume designs at lightning speed as other human characters but also as giants and ogres. Plus, four members become puppet operators for a full menagerie of woodland creatures, including dragons, butterflies, unicorns, and a bird that speaks all languages of the earth. It’s only at the end of the show when the actors take their bow you suddenly realize that what looked like a cast of many consists of only seven.

Particularly striking is Aaron Jackson’s scenic design that makes Herberger Center’s main stage appear like the open pages of a giant 3D layered pop-up book. With its linear look of trees and archways that lower and rise, and the tall, turreted fairytale castle in the background, all surrounded by countryside woods, the overall appearance is reminiscent to the style of backdrop used by the Disney animators in their 1959 film Sleeping Beauty, especially with the added look of the family cottage where Ella and her father live.

And while its setting may not be Christmas, with its humor, its colorful costumes, the songs, and its happy ever after conclusion, Ella Enchanted: The Musical is as close to a European styled family Christmas panto the valley will see. Like the well-chosen gift found under the tree that you never knew you wanted but are thrilled to receive, Childsplay just made the season that little bit brighter.

Ella Enchanted: The Musical continues at Herberger Theater Center until December 30

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