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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II didn't concoct that tune about wishing upon a star, but they might as well have, at least as far as their Cinderella is concerned. The disarming New York City Opera mounting, running through November 21, starts with the classic story - of a trod-upon young woman, a prince, and the glass slipper that comes between them - and a fine Rodgers and Hammerstein score, but ends as enchanting entertainment buoyed by a company highlighted by unique theatre artists.

Singular personalities pervaded the original 1957 television broadcast of this Cinderella, with rising superstar Julie Andrews (in the title role) receiving top-flight support from Broadway stalwarts Edith Adams, Kaye Ballard, Alice Ghostley, Howard Lindsay, Dorothy Stickney, and Ilka Chase. Future TV productions in the 1960s and 1990s would uphold that tradition by casting notable talents of the moment: Lesley Ann Warren took on the title role in the 1960s, pop star Brandy in the '90s. For the most part, this City Opera production isn't far behind.

The cast includes Ana Gasteyer and Lea DeLaria as Cinderella's step-sisters, Portia and Joy; John Epperson, better known as Lypsinka, as Cinderella's step-mother; Dick Van Patten and Renee Taylor as the King and Queen; and legendary Broadway diva Eartha Kitt as - yes - Cinderella's Fairy Godmother. At first glance, the casting screams camp, but these performers so expertly incorporate their personas into their characterizations that nothing ever seems incongruous.

Even when the performers are at their broadest, there's something irresistible about this confluence of such undeniable star power: Epperson's strong singing voice (good to know his years of lip-synching haven't tarnished it) and hilarious affectation of an English accent (moving in a fraction of a second from "can't" to "cahn't"); DeLaria's hitching up her several dozen petticoats and stalking the stage with a walrus-like gait; Taylor's unashamed flaunting of her New York accent; and Kitt's purring her way through her songs with her customary prowling sophistication - only to reveal a dazzling, honest smile moments later - all dissolve your preconceptions and carry you away on a cloud of giddy delight.

The downside of such luxuriously eccentric casting is that the more earthbound performers frequently fade into the background. Sarah Uriarte Berry and Christopher Sieber are solid musical theatre talents of the personality-free school so currently in fashion; as Cinderella and the Prince, they sing attractively and look good, but don't send much of themselves beyond the footlights. They lack the inner glow that makes you want to watch them even when they're surrounded by craziness.

That mix of sentiment and silliness is a tenuous one as written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, earnest but with a deft comic spark; Cinderella's "In My Own Little Corner" is a fitting tribute to the power of imagination in the face of loneliness (which pays off nicely in "When You're Driving Through the Moonlight," in which she "imagines" what she actually experiences at the ball), while "Ten Minutes Ago" and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" are two inviting romantic duets for the central couple. With the witty "Stepsisters Lament" and the liltingly hopeful "Impossible," you have an almost ideally balanced musical evening.

Things are occasionally thrown off-kilter by an odd interpolation - what "Loneliness of Evening" (cut from South Pacific) and "Boys and Girls Like You and Me" (cut from Oklahoma!) have to do with the faux-European Cinderella is anyone's guess - and Lee's labored direction and choreography. While the repetitive dances and scenes are often set so far upstage as to be problematic, the richness of the production's spectacle compensates quite a bit. Beyond the charming and often beautiful costumes (Gregg Barnes) and sets (Henry Bardon and David Jenkins), Richard Winkler's lights glimmer suggestively, and Steichen's conducting of Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations gives the score a lush, romantic sound.

Even when everything isn't ideal, this warm, amiable production is a good source of family fun. Even if you know the story of Cinderella backwards and forwards - and who doesn't? - there's more than enough here to freshen and revive the tale. Yes, the "zanies and fools who don't believe in sensible rules" of whom Kitt sings in "Impossible" often seem to be populating the stage, but it all works so well, it's hard to imagine this Cinderella any other way.


New York City Opera
Through November 21
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes with one intermission
New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, 63rd Street and Columbus
Tickets online: Ticketmaster

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