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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Cinderella and
Plaid Tidings

Cinderella
Mary Tuomanen, Alex Keiper and
Miriam White

Photo by Mark Garvin
The Arden Theatre's holiday show, Cinderella, is a peculiar take on the children's classic. Charles Way's script has a lot in it that will make parents shake their heads in disbelief, including a moody, morbid heroine obsessed with her mother's death and a "wicked stepsister" who makes a puerile joke about what mommy and daddy are really doing in their bedroom at night. But director Whit MacLaughlin's production is full of visual invention and a light comic touch, and the gloomy tone lightens considerably in time for the happy ending.

Mary Tuomanen's heroine wears dark, layered clothing, turns her sweater inside out to cover her head when she wants to avoid the world, and tells her father that she's not ready to move on after her mother's death: "I can grieve for as long as I wish." When her wimpy father (Joe Guzman) introduces Cinderella to her seemingly pleasant new stepmother (Susan Riley Stevens), the girl responds by biting the woman on the hand. And near the end of act one, when the serene but boring Fairy Godmother (Kala Moses Baxter) arrives and asks what Cinderella wants, the girl replies "I want my mother back." (It was at this point that I heard a little girl behind me crying.) Add on some tortured psychological backstories for the father and the stepmother, and it all becomes too much for the slender storyline to support—and too much for some kids to handle.

But Way's Cinderella isn't all doom and gloom. Act two won over the crowd, thanks to a generous dollop of comedy. There's the boisterous Benjamin Lloyd as King Leopold, who is throwing a ball even though he hasn't left his own bed in four years; Alex Keiper and Miriam White as sassy stepsisters who get into a slapstick battle over the prince; and Matteo Scammell, spiky-haired and charming as the court composer, Wolfgang. (Wolfgang is cleverly patterned after Mozart, whose music is used effectively throughout.) As the prince, Peterson Townsend is up to the challenges of being a straight man to the king and a persuasively romantic leading man to Cinderella.

MacLaughlin and his design crew—scenic designer David P. Gordon, costumer Rosemarie E. McKelvey, lighting designer Brian J. Lilienthal, and sound designer Jorge Cousineau—have created an intriguing world dominated by screens, shadows, and witty projections that depict a pumpkin transforming into a carriage without having to show us the real things. McKelvey dresses the stepsisters in clashing plaids that are as loud as the sisters themselves, while Cinderella is a Goth vision when she arrives at the ball in a puffy black gown with a black veil over her platinum blonde hair.

Tuomanen, so good recently as a punky teen rebel in Pookie Goes Grenading, is excellent as a sullen Cinderella who doesn't fit any of the princess clichés. (As the Fairy Godmother says, every girl has a princess inside her.) But this version of Cinderella, in rejecting those clichés, goes way too far in the other direction to be satisfying; its blend of darkness and light is unbalanced and, above all, unnecessary. The kids at my performance gave the show a big round of applause at the end, but I suspect a lot of them were asking their parents some discomforting questions after the show.

Cinderella runs through January 27, 2013, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $16 to $36 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at www.ArdenTheatre.org.

Plaid Tidings
Christopher deProphetis, Greg Nix, Ben Michael and Michael Philip O'Brien
Photo by Mark Garvin

"We're not hip, or hep," proudly declares one of the stars of Plaid Tidings, this year's holiday show at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3. Plaid Tidings is the Christmas edition of Forever Plaid, Stuart Ross' revue that's built a devoted following over the past two decades with its teasing yet loving tribute to the pre-rock, close-harmony sound of the 1950s. Plaid Tidings' mixture of comedy and music isn't always a successful one, but when it sticks to the music, it usually fares pretty well.

The stars of Plaid Tidings are The Plaids, a clean-cut quartet that was supposedly killed in a road accident on the night of The Beatles' American TV debut, but has now returned from the dead for the first (well, the second) time to stage an earthly reunion concert. The Beatles connection is an important one, because by the time The Beatles appeared on the scene, the smooth but bland sophistication of groups like The Four Freshmen and The Lettermen had come to seem outdated. But Plaid Tidings revels in its squareness; the show opens with The Plaids singing "Stranger in Paradise" from the Broadway musical Kismet, in an arrangement inspired by The Four Aces' 1954 hit version. The singers proceed to swivel their hips like Elvis, as if to tell their audience that they're not as old as they sound.

Much of Plaid Tidings continues in that vein, complete with extended tributes to The Plaids' heroes Rosemary Clooney and Perry Como. During the first act, the show keeps its sentimentality in check, mixing pop songs and Christmas songs with genial, self-mocking humor. But in act two, there's way too much padding. First, there's a lame, hackneyed comic rant on the lyrics of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and that's followed by a tiresome parody of "The Ed Sullivan Show." At that point, you may wish that The Plaids would just go back to singing again—and fortunately, they soon do.

The four singers—Ben Michael, Michael Philip O'Brien, Christopher deProphetis and Greg Nix—all have terrific voices, evident both in their solos and in the polished way they blend. (James Raitt did the show's adroit original arrangements, and David Jenkins is the show's vocal and musical director; Jenkins also backs the quartet on piano, accompanied by Andrew Nelson on bass.) Nix proves himself a fine physical comedian, and all four of the singers are personable performers who work hard to win over the audience. It all moves briskly, thanks to Larry Raben's direction and choreography.

Plaid Tidings is a cute idea for a show that runs out of ideas about halfway through. But you'll have fun while it lasts and, even if the music strikes you as unrelentingly corny, you'll still leave with a smile on your face—thanks largely to four men who are making spirits bright.

Plaid Tidings runs through December 30, 2012, at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $35 – $45, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, or online at www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or www.Ticketmaster.com.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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