Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 3, 2013
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. New Book by Douglas Carter Beane. Original Book by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Choreographed by Josh Rhodes. Orchestrations by Danny Troob. Scenic design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Fight Director Thomas Schall. Cast: Laura Osnes, Santino Fontana, Peter Bartlett, Ann Harada, Greg Hildreth, Marla Mindelle, Phumzile Sojola, with Harriet Harris, and Victoria Clark, Jill Abramovitz, Kristine Bendul, Drew Franklin, Heidi Giberson, Stephanie Gibson, Shonica Gooden, Kendal Hartse, Robert Hartwell, Laura Irioni, Adam Jepsen, Andy Jones, Andy Mills, Linda Mugleston, Alessa Neeck, Peter Nelson, Nick Spangler, Kirstin Tucker, Cody Williams, Branch Woodman, Kevin Worley.
As with Ella herself (the radiant Laura Osnes), who, thanks to the Fairy Godmother with whom she’s duetting (Victoria Clark), is heading to the prince’s ball quite a bit behind her dismissive stepmother and stepsisters, better late than never. But everything that happens before that point, and much of what happens after it, lacks that same sense of locomotion. This revised version of the stage adaptation of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s thrice-filmed television classic may have its wishes in order, but its heart is too infrequently in the right place.
Not that one can blame Douglas Carter Beane for wanting to rewrite most of Hammerstein’s original book. From the 1957 original onward, this Cinderella has been a by-the-numbers fairy-tale property that could well be seen as having limited appeal to the wiser New York youth of today (not to mention their ticket-buying parents.) So one had every reason to expect that Beane, the acerbic playwright who’s been best represented on Broadway by the rigorously adult comedy The Little Dog Laughed and the campy film spoof Xanadu, would shake up and modernize things.
The surprise is that he didn’t do so with any of his usual style. Rather than subverting and twisting expectations to make this a never-seen-before kind of fantasy, he’s yanked and yoked to the ground a story that, by its very nature, needs to fizz and float.
Here, the chicly named Prince Topher (Santino Fontana) is no longer merely a bored heir apparent, but a king-in-the-making who wants life to be about more than slaying trolls and dragons. Yet his regent, Sebastian (Peter Bartlett), has spent the years since Tophers’ parents death convincing him he’s good for nothing else — except, of course, unknowingly approving a string of unending legislation to steal land from the kingdom’s poor families. All Beane has done is replace the cliché of a parented prince lacking interest in power with one of a hapless victim of shadowy forces behind the throne.
This leads to plenty of other non-innovations, such as Sebastian throwing the ball to distract the populace from their disappearing fortunes; a court game of Ridicule, which of course is brought around to Kindness by way of bottomless good will; and Ella’s gold-digging stepmother (Harriet Harris) being politically in bed with Sebastian, so she may join him there literally once she’s married off her oldest daughter, Gabrielle (Marla Mindelle), to Topher. Alas, Gabrielle is secretly in love with Jean-Michel (Greg Hildreth), a socialist rabble-rouser who... oh, forget it.
Fontana, too aw-shucks-y for any classic rendition of this role, rises above this dross through sheer charm. But all that creaky “relevant” nonsense wreaks havoc on the more sophisticated Harris and Bartlett, who fade more into the background as they wrestle with each new flailing joke. And the grand implosion of it all is what helps the more staunchly traditional elements and showmanship feel fresher than ever.
The more the show focuses on its central romance, the better it is. Much of this is due to Rodgers’s lush melodies, particularly for Ella’s “In My Own Little Corner,” and her other duets with Topher, “Loneliness of Evening,” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?”, and especially “Ten Minutes Ago,” the last accompanying an elaborate full-stage waltz sumptuously executed by choreographer Josh Rhodes. But even Beane finds some inspiration, rethinking the usual “glass slipper” scenario not once but twice, and escorting everyone to a finale that’s satisfying both musically and dramatically.
There are other things to complain about — director Mark Brokaw never convinces you that he’s in control of the proceedings, and Anna Louizos’s torn-picturebook sets look shoddy and cheap compared to William Ivey Long’s magic-fueled costume plot — but they don’t matter much during the numerous moments the show is soaring or stumbling for other reasons. This inconsistency, by the way, is new — until now, Cinderella has always known what it is and what it needs to be. Beane has not accomplished the impossible and revolutionized this show, he’s merely made sure it, like its namesake character, is never entirely sure whether it will meet its destiny in riches or in rags.