Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella
Then, more than fifty years after its television debut, one of the American theatre's most brilliant and wittiest writers, Douglas Carter Beane, wrote a new book for the musical. It was with Beane's new book that Cinderella finally made its Broadway debut in 2013. This version is now on stage at Paper Mill Playhouse.
Miraculously, this is the Rodgers & Hammerstein Cinderella the American musical theatre has been waiting for. It is as much a sophisticated, brilliantly witty, adult musical as it is an unfussy, down to earth, magical fairy tale for families. There are new characters and transformed characters. One of Ella's stepsisters, Gabrielle, is sympathetic to her, and now has a suitor of her own. He is Jean-Michel, a timid firebrand of a reformer who wants to stamp out injustice. Gabrielle is not interested in marrying the prince; she wants to marry the penniless Jean-Michel for love. Her mother, the "wicked" stepmother, explains to her, "I married your father for love. He died, and I cried. I married Cinderella's father for money. He died, and I got the house."
Gabrielle and Cinderella become allies. Stepsister Charlotte is a silly-pants hoyden. Prince Topher's parents are deceased, and the kingdom is being run by a deep state Lord who keeps the prince in the dark on how he is running the country, intends to continue to usurp the Prince's authority to allow him to run the country (to benefit the elites), and opposes elections. How contemporary can you get? When Crazy Marie (Beane's version of Ella's Fairy Godmother) hands an invitation to the prince's ball to her, Ella notes anxiously, "But it's torn." Marie responds, "Don't wait for everything to be perfect. Just go."
Beane maintains a complementary balance between the clever, satiric humor and the sweet storybook wisdom. While Rodgers and Hammerstein's new collaborator is the hero of this new scenario, there is a plethora of credit to be spread around.
Cinderella has been blessed with a truly outstanding Rodgers and Hammerstein score filled with signature instrumental Richard Rodgers music (a march, a waltz, and a gavotte), and beautiful ballads with long melodic lines. Oscar Hammerstein's lovely, poetic lyrics are augmented by a considerable number of delightfully humorous ones. Credit is due to the terrific orchestrations by Danny Troob, the excellent orchestra conducted by Michael Borth, the perfectly tuned sound system (I hope it's as carefully engineered throughout the run as it was at the press opening), and the enchanting setting provided by the new book. The songs that have been added over time are not only apt and of high quality, but are obscure enough not to remind audiences of their diverse origin. Several were cut from Me & Juliet and South Pacific. Hearing the Paper Mill orchestra play "Waltz for a Ball" at the end of act one is a transporting treat in and of itself.
Beane, David Chase and Bruce Pomohac are credited with additional lyrics. As, at best, I can only guess what these lyrics are, it can be said that any new lyrics are not intrusive. Clearly, they are present to enhance, rather than deconstruct, Cinderella.
Director Mark S. Hoebee is playing to his strength here. Hoebee has an extraordinary gift for recreating classic musicals with pace, sharpness, nuanced understanding of the material, and verve that make them feel as fresh and exciting as when they first opened. Although the 2013 Broadway production had an outstanding cast and the uniquely charismatic charm of Santino Fontana, under Hoebee's direction, this Cinderella is livelier and more delightfully impactful than it was on Broadway. Those who saw Hoebee's stunning 1996 Paper Mill production of The Producers will know exactly what I am saying here.
Joann M. Hunter's choreography peaks with the enchanting waltz at the ball. The lovely and playable scenic design (Anna Louizos) and costume design (William Ivey Long) are the same as those employed on Broadway.
The secure and sweet-voiced Ashley Blanchet is a charming, admirable Ella with whom every incipient New Jersey princess can identify. The lithe and likeable Billy Harrigan Tighe conveys Prince Topher's modesty and insecurity with self-deprecating humor and gentility. Both deliver the goods performing their beautiful 11 o'clock number, "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?."
Strong major featured roles provide a showcase for major talent. Donna English brings warmth and humor to the forest denizen who will reveal herself to be Ella's Fairy Godmother. English wins our hearts by conveying her delight in performing this role. Dee Hoty is Ella's "wicked" stepmother and performs with a well-calculated archness that fully conveys the humor inherent in the script without compromising the stepmother's villainy.
Rose Hemingway perfectly places her Gabrielle at the spot where heartfelt longing can emerge from the humor of a stereotypical character. Angel Lin as stepsister Charlotte supported by other young ladies after the ball is over, stops the show with a wildly hilarious rendition of "Stepsister's Lament" ("why would a fellow want a girl like her?"). It just couldn't get any better.
You will not want to miss Broadway's funniest musical comedy villain Christopher Sieber as the overbearing Lord Chancellor Sebastian.
As the final curtain is about to fall, the entire company sings:
But the world is full of zanies and fools
Happily, this Rodgers and Hammerstein, Douglas Carter Beane Cinderella is one of them.
Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella runs through December 29, 2019, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Evenings: Wednesday - Sunday 7: p.m./ Matinees: Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays 1:30 p.m.. Exceptions: No Performances 12/22, 12/25 and 12/26 (evening). Additional Performances: 11/29, 12/24 and 12/27 (matinee); 11/26 and 12/17 (evening). For tickets and information, call the box office at 973-376-4343 or visit www.papermill.org.