Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 10, 2014
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: Keke Palmer, Sherri Shepherd, Joe Carroll, Peter Bartlett, Todd Buonopane, Stephanie Gibson, Ann Harada, Phumzile Sojola, and Judy Kaye, Jill Abramovitz, Darius Barnes, Kristine Bendul, Giovanni Bonaventura, Michael Callahan, Kristin Carbone, Kaitlyn Davidson, Cody Davis, Shonica Gooden, Kendal Hartse, Neil Haskell, Jessica Hershberg, Laura Irion, Nathan Lucrezio, Andy Mills, Shina Ann Morris, Jeff Pew, Sean Ronayne, Kirstin Tucker, Branch Woodman.
The good news for Beane is that some of that missed-opportunity edge has at last wormed its way into Cinderella. The rustic princess-to-be, who's spent most of the last 60 years conjuring up fantasy in her "own little corner" before discovering for real thanks to a Fairy Godmother and a glass slipper, has acquired a new set of street smarts thanks to the arrival of Keke Palmer. The young television actress (she's just 21) brings to the reconceived role a fresh perspective that couldn't be more different from that Laura Osnes did when she created the new part: Whereas Osnes saw ash-dusted Ella as an innate champion for the women's rights she eventually comes to represent, Palmer depicts her growing into that role only gradually.
All that Palmer's Ella has at the outset is a discontentment she can't name: She knows that smelling flowers and catering to the endlessly nasty whims of her stepmother (Sherri Shepherd) and stepsisters (Stephanie Gibson and Ann Harada) isn't for her, but she can't conceive of a replacement. "In My Own Little Corner," her charming establishing song about all the lives she can live only in her head, takes on an ironic sheen as it becomes clear she doesn't trust her fantasies any more than she does her family. This attitude naturally extends to her accidentally meeting the aging-past-handsome Prince Topher (Joe Carroll), but not the mad beggar woman Marie (Judy Kaye), who wants nothing more than to be shown a drop of kindness.
By placing her so firmly in the camp of "zanies and fools," Palmer believably propels her character into the guidance of Marie, who is, of course, the Fairy Godmother who makes Ella's resuscitationand that of most of the kingdom around hera possibility. It's a mature, more layered reading of Ella's potential that forces her to grow into her role as a feminine role model, and thus the woman worthy of Topher's affections, and gives the character a more dynamic arc than she had previously. And it's well marked enough that, by the time Ella starts playing games with leaving (or not leaving) shoes and working with the political uprising beneath the court's gaze, you accept it as, well, one of those "impossible things" that she and Marie recognize as "happening every day."
But if Palmer has a pleasant and controlled, if light, soprano voice that's a fine fit for the romantic song stack before her (which also includes the thrilling "Ten Minutes Ago," "When You're Driving Through the Moonlight," "Loneliness of Evening," and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?"), she possesses rather less in the way of charismatic stage chops. Despite the range of her intellectual choices, Palmer tends to shrink in the spotlight and, except when effecting any of the still-dazzling transformations from scullery wear to evening wear in William Ivey Long's sumptuous costume plot, is rarely the most interesting person onstage. To the limited extent you care about this Ella, it's because you have to, not because you want to.
Whether that's a worthy sacrifice for what's gained in Palmer's adventurous reading of the role is a tough call. Though Beane frequently seems more interested in his big subplot, about the forbidden romance between older stepsister Gabrielle (Gibson) and the socialist rabble-rouser Jean-Michel (Todd Buonopane) against the wishes of both the stepmother and Topher's scheming regent, Sebastian, Cinderella remains the central, starring role. Without a vibrant presence there, the evening loses much of its heart and what little point Beane has chosen to leave it.
Most of the other elements are not strong enough to pick up the slack. The direction (by Mark Brokaw), the choreography (Josh Rhodes), and even the distractingly cheap-looking picture-book sets (Anna Louizos) are at best serviceable, as though they, too, are in thrall to the score (far and away the show's strongest feature) and the new book. Even Carroll, whose portrayal is gawky but likable, tends to look and sound like an imitation of Topher's unique originator, Santino Fontana. Gibson and Buonopane are no better and no worse than their predecessors; though Peter Bartlett is still in the cast, he was out the day I saw the show, and his understudy, Branch Woodman, did an admirable if unexceptional fill-in job.
Nor do you lose anything with Kaye, who's terrific as Marie in both her crazy-crone and bewitching magic-maker forms. Bearing a golden dash of the maternal fused with both an otherworldly effervescence and a seen-it-all wisdom, Kaye not only pairs perfectly with Palmer, but straddles the worlds of the fantastic and the theatrical herself. With her, you're never positive where you'll end up, but whether you get there by way of a pumpkin carriage drawn by four white horses (concocted from mice) or by defying gravity, you know you'll love the trip and the destination alike.
When Kaye sings, in the production's singular musical highlight, "There's Music in You," of the paramount importance of having faith in your ability to move mountains and find love, you believe every word. That you've also seen it at work with Palmer is helpful, but unnecessarythe lesson of the song, and even the tinkered-with show, is that our inner lights always speak for themselves when they're given the chance to be heard. That the rest of this Cinderella isn't allowed to do so much more often is the cause of most of its problemsand, one suspects, the already-announced January 3 closing datebut the momentary encounters with those glorious strains are almost enough to guarantee a happily ever after ending all on their own.