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A couple of Cinderellas


More than once upon a time we have seen the old tale of Cinderella, her prince, her step-relatives and her stepping back into the shoe that went astray take musical form. And here we are again with two newly released cast albums. One began as the Rodgers & Hammerstein TV special over a half-century ago and since then has had its score somewhat changed and rearranged for various incarnations, this time bringing it to Broadway. The other, by way of an Oregon theatre production, has a charmer of a score by Ezra Weiss and taps into the love of putting on a show.

RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA
ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST

Ghostlight Records
[Digital version available; CD to be released June 4]

Oh, Rodgers & Hammerstein's frothy, fun and romance-laced look at Cinderella has had its share of tweaks and inserts since Julie Andrews in the title role first tried on the glass slipper and graced the colorful songs on TV. It was re-made not too long after and in recent years had another TV production that padded the score with other songs from the R&H catalogue. The same mix-and-match method (but not with the same repertoire-raidings) happened with a London production with top-billed Tommy Steele which resulted in a cast album. In recent years, yet another television adaptation was done, available on DVD, and there's a cast album of a non-US production starring Lea Salonga. The most recent take on the piece has taken hold on Broadway, with ideas and elements and songs of various versions, and—notably—rarities (little-known songs cut from other shows) and some additional lyrics. As has happened before, the tone and style is not decisively consistent: one moment things seem earnest and fairy tale-traditional and the next moment there's a wink and playfulness of another stripe. Some changes, additional lyrics and interpolations fit more snugly than others, and certainly they are less glaring than incorporating famous songs from the writing pair (or, in the case of the last TV reconstitution, an old Rodgers & Hart standard). In his liner notes for the second TV soundtrack album, Richard Rodgers wrote this of the first production: "There were occasions where we kidded the plot a bit. We should have known that Cinderella has been around far too long for any treatment other than the traditional one." Well, it's back to Square One of not wanting to seem square and sugary, so we do go back and forth and back again, but not as jarringly so as one might fear. If everyone isn't on the same page, at least they're in the same storybook.

While I have some mixed feelings and miss some of the lovely lilt and idealism (and juicier comic moments) that other versions have, there's quite a lot here to enjoy. I also admire some original choices of interpretation as a change of pace, even while not everything works as well for me. At least it's not a clone of other treatments or orchestrations. The little-known songs like "Me, Who Am I?" and "Now Is the Time" and "He Was Tall" are a collector's goldmine. They don't overshadow the songs written expressly for the story, but are nice and interesting additions, if not curiosities, too. "There's Music in You" was a big number in the most recent TV outing, to give Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother a big number. Parts of "One Foot, Other Foot" from Allegro are woven in, but that title itself is not sung (nor is the number listed in the song credits). Unfamiliar titles on the track list turn out to be instrumental versions of the original numbers or a combination of them, despite the tracks having titles like "The Pursuit" and "Transformations" (the titles are not in quotation marks as the songs are). Sung announcements of the prince giving the ball or the banquet play more like dialogue for comedy's sake and shtick, shortchanging the meaty melody with its trumpet-like brisk potential.

The orchestra sounds fine and lively, although Danny Troob's orchestrations seesaw between just right and engaging to overly-busy/detailed and pushy. This takes away a lot of the innocence and seduction into fantasy romance. It's grand to have the luxury of over an hour's playing time available on CD, but numerous restatements of melodies like "Ten Minutes Ago"—the love-at-first-sight-almost piece—get plenty of play and prominence, albeit in different tempi and dressings.

Sometimes the actor-singers seem to be trying oh-so hard to act and make the most of having so many words telegraph so many ideas and moods and attitudes in just a line or two. In Laura Osnes's "In My Own Little Corner," she sacrifices much legato life-lovingness to sing in a crisper manner, coloring words to match the character's mood-switches and fantasy frenzies. When using words describing confidence, fear, hesitancy-she seems to want/need to get those moods into many individual words—one juicier, one haughtier, one halting. It seems calculated. I guess that's better than brain-dead singing the melody line plainly and evenly, with no real attitude or arc. Certainly the Osnes voice can be lush and creamy or direct and crisp, dialogue-like. We get all of the above.

As the prince, Santino Fontana seems to have a bit of multiple personality disorder, due to the songs given him to build up his singing assignments. "The Loneliness of Evening" was cut from South Pacific and used in the second TV version, but it's always struck me as a bit too heavy and sad for the overall feel of the score. And his early songs seem labored in their studied attention to diction. Nevertheless, he makes some successful strides in making the patchwork work.

Ann Harada as one of the two stepsisters is a ditzy, semi-demented hoot. She finds some quite comical and original line readings and phrasing to rev up songs she's in with those playing her family members. Meanwhile, as her sibling, Marla Mindelle is graceful in her singing, refreshingly natural and blithe so that her track with Cinderella, which would normally be just a little extra bit of fluff, is especially marvelous as she exhibits unaffected, unforced comfort zones and pretty tones. As the stepmother, Harriet Harris brings a savvy pro's expertise and economy in expressing her points and posing. Victoria Clark hits the mark in her very own way as the fairy godmother, dotty and pleased with herself. She mines some funny phrasing and attitude, owing little to previous holders of the magic wand.

While I may ultimately prefer a less jaunty, more innocent and lush treatment of some numbers, I'm always intrigued by new interpretations and there's much here that gets a royal treatment. Its charming qualities grow on me with each playing. To invoke one of the score's titles, "It's Possible!"

CINDERELLA
ORIGINAL (NORTHWEST CHILDREN'S THEATRE & SCHOOL) CAST (OREGON)

There's more to the rags-to-riches tale of forced-labor victim Ella (soiled by cinders) and the prince of her daydreams and dreamy romantic rhapsodies. Many have tried. Ezra Weiss (book, music and lyrics), who did well by one of many musicalizations of Alice in Wonderland not long ago in cast album lifetimes, has found a new look at Cinderella. For starters, she lives to dance. It gets her mind of the menial work and worries. (It's one of her tap shoes she loses at the ball.) And guess what—the prince wants to dance, too—show him the footlights. In this version, show biz dreams are there in their glory.

There are many joys and jollies to mine from Weiss' way with the fairy tale. He stresses comedy and energy. Melodies are often peppy and brisk, lyrics generally deft and delicious, with some exceptions. In the first couple of numbers, there may be a forced rhyme or two or a syllable shoehorned in, but this is as rare as a rat turning into a coachman. As much as the romp pays its respects to the original story (with the stepmother addressing our heroine as "Menial Wench" and the nagging parents of Prince Bobby encouraging the bachelor boy to settle down and pick a wife), it's also a valentine to show biz. The leads are both stage-struck, singing "I Just Wanna Dance," putting on a show, loving the time in the limelight, asking for hat and cane.

This show is adorable, with a playful sense. For example, in the just-mentioned number, there's narration about Cinderella "lovingly disinfecting her only possessions" (cleaning supplies) and then our winsome lass sings "When I'm brushing off my broom, and dusting off my duster/ And rinsing out my rags/ So they don't lose their luster." Melodies are perky, pastichey, and plucky. The stepsisters "hide" their mutual animosity/jealousy in vying for the prince, handily backhandedly complimenting each other as his likely choice: "I am sure he'll delight in your bravery/ That you dare to wear that pair of shoes/Who cares if they match when you're such a catch" (Note the rhyming of dare/wear/pair, although "shoes" gets the imperfect rhyme of the title line, "I'm Sure He'll Pick You"). Also broad and comical are the accents for two characters: Armando (who does the tongue-in-check narration) and dance mistress/taskmistress Madame Tatyana, the equivalent of the fairy godmother—sort of. A game and pleasing cast from the NorthWest Children's Theater & School breezily and blithely barrels through their duties, with a strong leaning towards razzamatazz musical comedy zing.

There's a strong potential for stand-alone standout pieces being plucked for performers looking for material. This is especially the case with those nifty numbers about show business and its accompanying work ethic ("The Show Must Go On," "Practice Makes Perfect") and the aforementioned prominent "I Just Wanna Dance"—which, besides the eight-minute track where it's the centerpiece, is heard in the beginning in the overture and reprised as the finale. Some pieces will remind you of old-school song-and-dance-athons (in a good way, a Fred Astaire way, or a cartoony tuneful way), like in "I Don't Need Lights," which seems to briefly bring Menken magic to mind ("hey, Mr. Aladdin, sir ..."). But this spiffy spot on piece is special in its own way, giving us more than just one more adaptation of the Cinderella plot. It has its own magic beyond the literal rags-to-riches special effects of gown and glories, wand or no wand.

Weiss, whose other recordings include jazz excursions and a Harold Arlen album, is clearly a wearer of many hats and genre-juggler. He also conducts a band of ten players, some playing more than one instrument, including two men on trombone and euphonium. The bubbliness and fizz should make this show a family favorite in theatres all over. The humor, surprises, and lack of sappiness would make it appeal to adults, while the plucky heroine and fast pace of accessible music and lyrics will please the youngsters. And what show folks don't love a show about putting on a show. This Cinderella sounds good to me—in both senses of that phrase.


- Rob Lester


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