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Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella – Theatre Review: National Touring Company Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

There’s a long forgotten musical that opened on Broadway in 1938. It was revived on stage at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1970, then on the massively curved Cinerama screen as a 1972 musical movie epic. Despite the revivals, it remains mostly forgotten, and for a good reason. It wasn’t particularly good. It was called The Great Waltz and told the life story of Johann Strauss ll. But it did have one saving grace. It was the climactic scene in the Vienna ballroom. The stage turned into a whirling mass of beautiful dresses as the cast suddenly filled all corners, gracefully dancing while held in each other’s arms, twirling in ever increasing circles to The Blue Danube. It didn’t save the show, but at least you left the theatre having seen at least one, gorgeous, spectacular moment.

Whether the ballroom scene in the 2013 Broadway update to Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella was influenced in any way by that single moment from the ‘38 musical is hard to say. Probably not, but it sure looked the same, though with one major difference. While The Great Waltz waited until the end of the production to finally come alive, this Cinderella is ablaze in life and swirling color from the beginning.

Originally written as a 76 minute television production in 1957 for Julie Andrews, the show has since navigated its way through several different versions for both the small screen and the stage, each one differing in some way from the other as though continually in development. Songs were removed, while newer ones added, including Now is the Time, cut from South Pacific and given here to a new character. Plus, the book grew longer and longer. In 2013 it finally made its way to Broadway, appearing as the sum total of all the work and revisions made to the piece since that CBS broadcast in March of ‘57. And that’s what you’ll see in Tempe, performing right up until Christmas Eve on the stage at ASU Gammage. And it’s quite the glittering spectacle, nowhere more appropriate for family audiences with young princesses of their own than the week leading to Christmas.

Everyone knows the story of Cinderella and how the young woman is orphaned and forced into a life of servitude by a wicked stepmother and her two ugly stepsisters. That’s the tradition, and that’s basically the arc of what happens in this Broadway spectacle. But being an update aimed at modern young tastes, there are major differences to what you think you may see and the tale this musical tells.

This wicked stepmother known simply as Madame (Sarah Smith) is more mean spirited than wicked. “My resentment is all consuming,” she declares. Plus the stepsisters are hardly ugly, or mean. The pudgy, bespectacled Charlotte (Joanna Johnson with perhaps the best song in the show, Stepsister’s Lament) is too self-absorbed to spend time being cruel to Cinders, and Gabrielle (Nicole Zelka) turns out to be surprisingly nice and in love with a new character with a social conscience, the somewhat revolutionary Jean-Michel (Corbin Williams).

Cinderella is credited as Ella (Tatyana Lubov, who looks lovely and sounds equally so), while the Prince, originally written as Prince Christopher, is here given an update with a shortened moniker, though instead of going for the usual Chris, writer Douglas Beane has renamed him with the hip though clumsy sounding Topher (Louis Griffin). And what’s really interesting here is that where the character of the prince is traditionally a support, in this update, most of the show revolves around him and how he changes from a likable though naive dunderhead to a mature leader of the kingdom. Ella’s character never seems to fully develop until the fairy godmother, here known as Crazy Marie (Leslie Jackson), reveals her supernatural self and sets Cinders on the road to the ball.

In truth, the show possesses a split personality among its magic, hovering somewhere between the old-fashioned and the new. While Cinderella’s overall story is, by now, practically unbreakable, the changes that writer Beane has made to boost the original 76 minutes into a two hour plus presentation may have some younger audience members adjusting uncomfortably in their seats, wondering why the show introduces the prince as some kind of slayer of monsters and dragons.

An introductory battle with what looks like a fairy tale version of an over-sized stick insect feels peculiar; you’re not quite sure where the unexpected scene is going, or why. Plus, the political overtones of newbie Jean Michel teaming with nice stepsister Gabrielle to overthrow government and introduce democracy with elections feels unnecessarily progressive. It doesn’t spoil things, but it will go over the heads of the young tiara wearing princesses in the audience who may still be wondering why Cinders intentionally gave Prince Topher the glass slipper instead of accidentally leaving it on the palace steps.

But new content aside, none of that will matter once you surrender to the look and sound of the show, which is breathtaking in its fanciful colors as side-boxed dresses swirl and glitter. There’s real theatrical magic to be enjoyed, including the trick of seeing rags turn into sparkling dresses in the blink of an eye, pumpkins turn into carriages, and glove puppets of woodland creatures turn into Cinders’ footman and driver. With theatrical fog that clouds the entire stage, a twinkling carriage on the move, and a full, bright moon hovering in the background, Cinderella’s ride to the ball as she sings Impossible is one of the most magical sights you’ll see on the ASU Gammage stage.

One thing. If all of Cinderella’s beautiful gowns and dresses turn back to rags as the magic ends for her at midnight, how come the glass slipper never demilitarizes? Just a thought.

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday December 24.

Pictures courtesy of Carol Rosegg

Posted in Theatre

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