By Bill Hirschman
This is going to sound a little hifalutin’ for a musical theater review, but Goethe, author of Faust, once said, and we’re paraphrasing, “Don’t judge a show by what you want or expect it to be; figure out what the author wanted to do and then figure out how well he did it.”
So it’s undeniable that Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella is a lush, imaginative and polished production nearly guaranteed to delight audiences of all ages – really, toddlers in rarely-used Disney princess costumes to grandparents bemoaning the evaporation of “good ol’ theater.”
That said, if you’re looking for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, you’re going to have to look very, very hard inside the new national tour that played a brief week at the Arsht Center in Miami and will play this week at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
Because Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella is, title notwithstanding, bookwriter Douglas Carter Beane’s Cinderella (Beane who wrote Xanadu and Sister Act) and director Mark Brokaw’s Cinderella and music adapter David Chase’s Cinderella and even costume designer William Ivey Long’s Cinderella.
These very skilled practitioners of the art of Broadway in the 21st Century have basically taken the bones of the songwriting team’s score from the 1957 television special (and subsequent revisions), ignominiously dropped Hammerstein’s script into the garbage dump and used what was left as raw material for a transmogrified musical which, standing on its own merits and its own terms, works beautifully.
Those who remember the Julie Andrews version (portions are on YouTube) or the 1965 version with dewy-eyed Lesley Ann Warren have to put those editions back inside their memory book.
Hammerstein did not envision a spunky Belle, I mean Ariel, I mean Elsa, I mean Cinderella finding her inner feminist and thus empowered, take lessons learned from a social revolutionary to teach a callow prince the importance of participatory elections in an absolute monarchy. (I’m not making this up.)
But this edition is awash in spectacle, soaring voices, stage magic, carefully-wrought but invisible theatrical craft in every discipline and most prominently, Beane’s very contemporary script festooned with enough arch jokes and current cultural references to keep the parents in the audience entertained. When Cinderella first meets Prince Topher (Prince Topher? Maybe better, Prince Keanu), sorry, when Ella first meets Topher, she says incredulously, “That was a world leader? He appears to have a heart, a mind and a soul!” Beane, to be fair, is a terrific playwright with a wonderfully wry sense of drollery, seen in plays like The Little Dog Laughed and most recently The Nance.
Since they have to fit that pesky Rodgers and Hammerstein score into their new framework, Chase and orchestrator Danny Troob have heavily adapted and expanded the original, and Beane and Chase have provided “additional lyrics” to shore up the work of one of the finest lyricists of the 20th Century.
While the show shuttles between witty satire and unabashed romanticism, Beane and director Brokaw do a passable of job of preventing you from feeling like you are watching dueling shows. That’s because when they go for the romance, there’s no winking, no holding back. The elegant scene at the prince’s ball when Cinderella and Topher meet is, indeed, sumptuous in sets, costumes, lights, music, choreography and the emotion emanating from the characters.
And, of course, in the end, there is that gorgeous score which includes “A Lovely Night,” “Ten Minutes Ago,” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful,” “In My Own Little Corner,” and my two favorites, “Impossible” and “The Stepsister’s Lament.”
But the star of this show is Long’s wardrobe filled with frills and layers and brocades and gowns and waistcoats and color and texture that almost defy description. Plus there are the two scenes in which Cinderella’s hearthside rags transform before your eyes into different ball gowns of crystal white and gleaming gold. It’s not simply that the gowns magically appear (you can probably dope out how it’s done) it’s that they are so beautiful to begin with.
Josh Rhodes’ original choreography is energetic and peppy enough in most places, but it becomes a dream in the swirling ball scenes. Kenneth Posner has evocatively lit Anna Louizos’ highly textured settings including a deep forest that could be used for the next production of Into The Woods.
Brokaw, who obviously deserves credit for much of the vision, has staged the entire evening with imagination and a smooth polish not often found in a road company.
Last but not least, the color-blind cast is as strong as you could ask for. Paige Faure, who just did a turn in the role on Broadway, is not just lovely but has a mezzo-soprano with a lower range that gives Ella a bit of heft and backbone as she grows into her confidence. Andy Jones is requisitely tall, blond and handsome with a flexible tenor, and a willingness to make Topher a bit callow with the need for some independent woman to help him grow up.
Beth Glover is a hilariously unapologetic haughty and abusive stepmother, Kecia Lewis is a gospel-voiced fairy godmother, Miami native Aymee Garcia and Ashley Park are the stepsisters, Carbonell winner for Florida Stage’s At Wits End Blake Hammond as a scheming bureaucrat, and David Andino as plebian revolutionary .
This is well worth a ticket. But as far as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, well, to coin a phrase, “Let it go.”
Side note: Whoever schedules the tour doesn’t know geography. The show plays Miami a week, then plays Charlotte, N.C., then West Palm, then Durham, N.C.
Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella from Broadway Across America runs Nov. 11-16. at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Boulevard, West Palm Beach. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including one intermission. Tickets are $25– $73. For more information, call 561-832-7469 or visit kravis.org.