Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella
Also see Arty's review Akeelah and the Bee
A 1965 remake of the TV special starring newcomer Lesley Ann Warren, was taped, enjoyed over repeat broadcasts, and later on home video players. A 1998 remake reflected changing times with color blind castingBrandy as Cinderella, Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, and Paolo Montalbán as the Princebut little was different about the story itself.
In 2013, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella was brought to a Broadway stage for the first time, and this week launches the 2015-2016 Broadway on Hennepin Series at the Orpheum Theatre. The Broadway producers have made wise decisions that create a Cinderella sweeping enough to fill large Broadway houses and touring showcases around the country. They also recruited Douglas Carter Beane to write a new book that makes Cinderella at home in the 21st century.
For the past 50 years, feminists have pointed to Cinderella as an archetypal helpless maiden who aspired to nothing loftier than being loved by a handsome prince in order to live happily ever after. To achieve her dream, it is not enough that she possess both inner and outer beauty; she must wear the most beautiful gown and, for good measure, glass slippers. Our new Cinderella is more content with herself, in spite of the gloomy life granted by her stepmother Madame and her two stepsisters. Pointedly, only Madame and the stepsisters call her by the pejorative Cinderella; to herself and all others she maintains her given name, Ella. She does not long for salvation through true love, but by doing good in the world.
The prince, Topher, also searches for more than a beautiful bride. He is beloved by his people as a slayer of dragons and giants (an opening scene depicts such feats of daring to great effect), but yearns for a deeper meaning, not by acquiring a beautiful bride, but by discovering a more noble purpose for his life (shades here of Pippin). When he falls helplessly in love with Ella, it is not only for her grace and beauty, but for her concern for the well-being of Prince Topher's subjects who, unknown to the sheltered Topher, are being robbed of their land and their rights by Topher's guardian, the prime minister Sebastian.
This leads to a third, truly ingenious update Beane has given Cinderella. While the show boasts a bevy of wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein songs"In My Own Little Corner," "Impossible," "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful," "Stepsister's Lament," and "Ten Minutes Ago," a stunning Rodgers waltzthe storyline is pretty simple and linear. To spice things up, Beane borrows from the great Rodgers and Hammerstein shows: a second couple! Think Carrie Pipperidge and Mr. Snow (Carousel) or Ado Annie and Will Parker (Oklahoma!). Beane created the character Jean-Michal, a would-be revolutionary who rails against the evils Sebastian has thrust upon the kingdom. He is matched with one of Ella's stepsisters, Gabrielle. She has a not well-kept secret crush on Jean-Michal, as he does on her. This plot device brilliantly provides a contract with the Ella-Topher plot line, as well as creating a richer dynamic for Ella and her step-family.
Along with other updates, the fairy godmother Marie is known as a local madwoman of the woods, revealing her true nature only in Ella's time of need. Ella is kind to Marie where others scorn her, and the two have a bond of friendship that enriches the story. One of the best lines, when Ella sees Marie transformed into a be-gowned fairy godmother, has Ella cry out, "But you are a crazy women, what are you doing in that beautiful dress?" to which Marie replies "You'd be surprised how many beautiful dresses have a crazy woman inside them."
The update whips Cinderella from a puff pastry into a wedding cake, with no expense spared in decorating that cake. William Ivey Long's glorious Tony-winning costume designs astound and amaze, in particular when Ella's attire magically transformsnot once, but twicefrom peasant garb to stunning ball gowns. Neither my companion nor I could figure out how this was accomplished right before our eyes, and to tell the truth, I am not sure I want to know. Let there be magic!
The sets, too, are artful and wonderful, opening in a forest with tree trunks growing from the stage floor clear into the flies, draped by leafy canopies. The forest motif is used throughout, with woody limbs forming the frame of Madame's home and Topher's palace. Light and sound embellish the beauty of the stagecraft. Speaking of sound, this is a rare touring production that was free of opening night sound glitches.
Paige Faure plays Ella, and she has us eating out of her hand. Her singing can be earnestly sweet but also brassy (I heard tones of Judy Garland in her voice), she dances gracefully, and she can be both funny and moving. The part is hers! Andy Huntington Jones, as Prince Topher, is a wonderful counterpart. If not quite as sublime as Faure, the two of them have great chemistry together, and it is easy to believe that their match has been helped along by magic.
Broadway veteran Liz McCartney plays Marie, bringing brio and a lovely voice to the part. Kaitlyn Davidson as stepsister Gabrielle and Aymee Garcia as stepsister Charlotte are both ace comediennes, and Garcia especially shines leading the neglected damsels at the ball in "Stepsisters' Lament." Davidson is adorably matched with Will Blum's revolutionary Jean-Michel. Beth Glover plays Madame, and comes across more as a nasty comic than as truly evil, relishing her great skills at heaping ridicule on others. Blake Hammond's Sebastian is deliciously wicked.
Let us not overlook the wonderful dances devised by choreographer Josh Rhodes. So many new show have lots of movement, but little true dancing. These lords and ladies truly dance, and Rhodes' inventive waltzes heap layer upon layer of breathless joy. Director Mark Brokaw keeps everything moving seamlessly and brings sharp clarity to both the well-worn and newly hatched storylines.
The illogical glass slipper fitting, by which the Prince once and for all finds the woman he has fallen in love with, has not been jettisoned, in spite of the total unlikeliness that no other woman's foot but Ella's will fit the slipper, or that there is no more certain way to identify his bride to be (say, "Can you repeat what you said to me last night at the ball?"). But some memories are so dear to us that logic has nothing to do with it. Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella has kept the best of those, and added delightful and smart new elements to give us terrific show, brimming with romance, laughter, wit, and beauty.
Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella runs through September 13, 2015, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets are $49.00 to $144.00. For tickets go to www.HennepinTheatreTrust.com or call 1-800-928-2782. For other tour cities and dates, go to cinderellaonbroadway.com/tour.
New Book: Douglas Carter Beane; Music: Richard Rodgers: Lyrics and Original Book: Oscar Hammerstein II; Director: Mark Brokaw; Choreographer: Josh Rhodes; Music Adaptation, Supervision and Arrangement: David Chase; Orchestration: Danny Troob; Scenic Design: Anna Louizos; Costume Design: William Ivey Long; Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner; Sound Design: Nevin Steinberg; Hair Design: Paul Huntley; Music Director and Conductor: Valerie Gilbert; Music Coordinator: Howard Joines; Casting: Cindy Tolan and Adam Caldwell; Technical Supervisor: Larry Morley; Associate Choreographer: Lee Wilkins; Production Stage Manager: Seth F. Barker; Associate Producer: Charles Salamenco
Cast: Chip Abbott (raccoon, driver), Will Blum (Jean-Michel), Audrey Cardwell (woodland creature), Kaitlyn Davidson (Gabrielle), Tanner Fairbanks (Fox), Paige Faure (Ella), Aymee Garcia (Charlotte), Beth Glover (Madame), Blake Hammond (Sebastian), Andy Huntington Jones (Topher), Lauren Lukacek (raccoon, lady of ridicule), Liz McCartney (Marie), Antoine L. Smith (Lord Pinkerton), Lauren Sprague (woodland creature), Tanner Ray Wilson (fox, footman)
Ensemble: Chip Abbott, Adrian Baidoo, Summer Broyhill, Audrey Cardwell, Cody Davis, Rachel Fairbanks, Alexandra Frohlinger, Lauren Lukacek, Sean Seymour, Lauren Sprague, Paige Williams, Tanner Ray Wilson, Thad Turner Wilson, John Yi