Review: Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'Cinderella' at Dallas Summer Musicals
How would Cinderella find a man had her life and story was supplanted smack into today’s world? Right off the bat she would not be wearing glass slippers, but some divine louboutin pumps. Doubt she’d trust some weird wacko claiming she’s a fairy godmother that wants her to ride a vegetable to a big party; it would have to be a stretch Limo! And her gown must come off the runway from the Dolce & Gabbana spring collection. Would she meet her man via Match.com? Tinder? Face book? So suffice to say the girl in Rogers & Hammerstein’s (R&H) vision of her finding romance might be easier to-as Beyoncé says-“If you liked it then you should've put a ring on it.”
Dallas Summer Musicals has brought to the Music Hall the 2013 Broadway revival that earned nine Tony award nominations, winning for Best Costume Design.
R&H first brought to life this fairy tale for television in 1957 starring Julie Andrews; this was the only time they created a score for television. It would be brought back to the TV airwaves two more times. There was the 1965 version starred Lesley Ann Warren. The 1997 ABC telecast broke major barriers in nontraditional casting. The title role was portrayed by pop star Brandy, while the fairy godmother was played by one of the greatest voices in pop music, the late Whitney Houston. The prince was portrayed by Filipino-American actor Paolo Montalbán, while his parents were played by Victor Garber and Whoopi Goldberg.
The stage version has been mounted in 1961, 1993, 1995, and 2004. It also had a 2000 national tour starring the late Eartha Kitt as the fairy godmother (which I saw).
For this spanking new 2013 revival, it had its book drastically altered by Douglas Carter Beane. He created new characters, changed the characterizations of some existing roles (such as one of the step sisters), while the score was sprinkled with some new songs from the R&H canon. Some of these new songs include "Me, Who Am I?", "Now Is the Time", "The Pursuit", "Loneliness of Evening" and "There's Music in You".
The revival waltzed for 770 performances at the Broadway Theater, and made Laura Osnes, who was cast in the title role into a major leading lady on the Great White Way. This revival also had a revolving door of casting several stars to take over the role of the fairy godmother once Victoria Clark (who originated the role for the revival) left the show. The Nanny’s Fran Drescher, Broadway veterans Nancy Opel and Judy Kaye, The View’s Sherri Shepherd, and finally NeNe Leakes, the star of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta took over the role.
In a very rare achievement, this current national tour has already recouped its investment in just six months when it began its run in 2014, and is already booked through 2016.
When it comes to revivals, you so desperately want them to be fresh, and given a complete overhaul of new originality and creativity. Nothing will put me faster into a slumbering boredom than paint by number rehash of the same version of a war horse musical. Thankfully this production of Cinderella is none of that whatsoever.
Douglas Carter Beane has become one of my favorite book writers of musicals. His books for Sister Act, Lysistrata Jones, and Xanadu were all bold, new, and covered in laughter, each one strongly connected to the score. These three books earned him Tony Award nominations, for Cinderella he earned another Tony nod. This new book has completely reconstructed the old, creaky, sugar coated original book and gave it a much stronger layer of plot that provided the characters with much more substance, reality, and subtext to grasp onto. There is still beautiful romance, but he wisely pushed the characters away from carbon copy replicas of fairy tale characters, and grounded them more in reality and dimension. Then brushed all of them with a never ending stream of hysterical laughter. He shuffled around the existing score, added some new songs, which actually makes the material work so much better now. It does not have that bland repetition of a book that simply serves as a thin thread to connect to the score. Those old books that practically bang over the audience’s head, “Okay! Here comes the next song!” Beane beautifully ties his book like a string of glistening pearls to each song. There is a parade of never ending laughs throughout his clever book. This gives the adults in the audience to greatly enjoy this musical as much as the kids. Beane outdid himself by taking the old and create out of it a completely new and much stronger version of Cinderella.
Mark Brokaw directs his cast to wear their characterizations like a second skin, and not simply stick to familiarity. He wisely gives the comic roles breathing room to jump out of the box, but also to restrain themselves from not becoming over the top. The staging and blocking is remarkable. There is a ton of scenery moving from all areas of the stage, but Brokaw stages the company to glide right along with it all with ease. His pace is brisk, crisp, and energetic. Aiding him is the lush, romantic choreography by Josh Rhodes. All the musical numbers have vigorous, zesty new choreography. His work for the ballroom numbers “Gavotte”, “Ten Minutes Ago”, and “Cinderella Waltz” is romantic, elegant, athletic, and wrapped in romance. The choreography for the ballroom scenes were so entertaining that the audience at Tuesday’s performance would several times break into spontaneous applause!
Jay Alger music directs a sublime orchestra that has live strings in the pit. No piped in electronic fake strings here, but instead we hear violins and a cello float over the audience.
I was given Tuesday evening after the performance a special surprise with a private backstage tour by Assistant Company Manager Jose Solivan for a closer look at the sets and costumes. In many national tours, they take the scenery from the closed Broadway production, repaint/repair it and send it out. However, when this Cinderella was set to go on tour, the Broadway version was still playing in New York. So the tour has a completely new set!
Anna Louizos scenic design is absolutely magnificent; it is practically the same as the Broadway version but with only a couple of tweaks here and there. The tour comes with its own massive, state of the art automation track system that makes all that scenery move. Off stage hidden away from the audience are towers of computers and electronic wizardry that makes all that movement on stage glide seamlessly. The technical crew actually named these towers after the various characters from Gilligan’s Island (true fact!). Louizos has designed a magical, very detailed forest that drifts and floats around the company all evening long. These towering set pieces shift and change to create a completely new part of the forest. The home where Cinderella and her family live in are three major pieces. The two side set pieces (beautifully painted and detailed to perfection) turn around to show the inside. For the Palace she designed a sleek, pristine white set of stairs, a long upper walkway, a huge ornate center frame, and six very tall moving candelabras. Up close you can see that the base is carved to look like tree branches snaking around them. Then there is the carriage and horses. You have to see it in person to truly capture the exquisite design Louizos has achieved here. Up close you can see crystals and rhinestones sprinkled all over it. It is a breath taking, magical world that Louizos has designed here.
The maestro of costume designing William Ivy Long has outdone himself with the creations he imagined for this Cinderella. It is very clear why he won the Tony Award for his work in this revival right there on the stage. The costumes actually had audience members gasp, ooh and aww all evening long. He uses a bounty of rich fabrics, both in solid colors and patterns, dipping them in shimmering rhinestones and crystals. The ladies ensemble ball gowns, Madame, the stepsisters, Cinderella’s ball gown, and the Fairy godmother’s gown are works of art. You have to see them on stage to get the full impact of their marvelous design. I was able to see them up close and personal during my backstage tour and the craftsmanship is unbelievable. From principal to ensemble, each ball gown has layers upon layers of chiffon, ornate lace, tulle, and patterns galore. On stage when they twirled you could see this sea of color all over the stage. But up close the design of each gown is just incredibly designed in fine detail. The men are also costumed in a multitude of colors and fabrics. The lords of the ballroom in soft satins of various colors. The Knights in sleek armor. Sebastian has several lavish long robes; complete with a massive jewel necklace that symbolizes his regal position within the royal court. The costumes designed by Long will astound both young and old. But then there are the transformations of the fairy godmother and Cinderella that will blow your mind! I’ve never seen that kind of theatrical magic done with costume design like this before. There are in fact several scenes that has Cinderella transforming, from wig to full costume right before your eyes that was met with gasps and loud applause! You will not believe your eyes when you see this occur on stage!
A special round of kudos must go to Paul Huntley’s hair and wig design. There are a ton of wigs worn by the cast. The women have wigs that go up high into the air, or sideways, or are designed in very comical ways. But Huntley created his wigs to match the emotion and characterization of each actor. How rare that is in today’s world of design. Bravo Mr. Huntley!
To complete the magical world of Cinderella is Kenneth Posner’s phenomenal lighting design. His amazing design transports the audience into a fantasy world. For the forest he has various gobos and finely detailed lighting that actually makes the forest come to life. Inside Cinderella’s cottage it is bursting with sunny brightness. For the Fairy godmother’s entrances he has dazzling special effects. And for the ballroom, he bathes the set and cast in lush, romantic hues of color, gobos, and movement. It is just visually enthralling lighting design that Posner has achieved here.
Thanks to Beane’s book, the ensemble are on stage a lot more than in past productions of Cinderella. And with this touring ensemble they deserve to be on stage as much as possible for they bring so much energy, pace, and humor to the evening. They avoid the pitfalls of blending into the scenery. Instead they each bring their own characterizations to the various roles they portray, be they the poor citizens or the lords and ladies at the ball. Their execution of Rhodes choreography is flawless throughout the evening. The men have some terrific choreography as the knights and lords. The women provide some hearty laughs in the song “Stepsister’s Lament” that is done on the Palace staircase. The vocals provided by the ensemble are robust and the harmonies are tight. In several numbers they actually bump up the volume and emotion of the song with their gorgeous singing. This ensemble bonds evenly with the principals in regards to talent and connection to the material.
Tanner Ray Wilson portrays the fox and Blakely Slaybaugh is the raccoon. At first they are furry puppets (executed by Rachel Fairbanks and Jennifer Evans), but then Marie (the fairy godmother) magically turns them into footmen for Cinderella’s carriage. Wilson and Slaybaugh are given exciting, athletic, and acrobatic like choreography that both performers execute brilliantly. They also provide the audience with some great laughs when they both magically grow their tails back when the clock strikes midnight.
Antoine L. Smith (Lord Pinkleton), Branch Woodman (Sebastian), and David Andino (Jean Michel) are a trio of extremely talented actors who possess excellent comedic timing and delivery. Smith is the Palace’s spokesman who carries a big bell. He has a belting tenor voice that aides him to announce the news to the Kingdom. Woodman is the snooty government leader who “thinks” he’s the true ruler and authority. Woodman gives the role just the right dose of nose in the air and avoid the common folk aura that the role demands. He also has some jovial comic zingers within his characterization. Andino portrays the revolutionary who is fighting for his fellow citizens against the royals for stealing their land. Think Che from Evita, but in tights. Andino bounces with frenetic energy and also has solid comedic talent to bring to the piece. This is a new character that Beane created from his book, and Andino does wonderful justice to this new role.
Beth Glover is Madame, AKA the evil stepmother. Thanks to Beane’s new book and Brokaw’s direction, the character is no longer a one note character. In past versions of Cinderella, she stays evil and mean all evening long-that gets a bit boring for the audience. Here she is given much more humor and even moments of kindness to Cinderella. Glover is a regal lady costumed in luxurious gowns. Glover brings a delicious layer of comedy to her characterization. She knows instinctively when to be cruel, or when to bring out the laughs. Her comedic timing, pace, and delivery is some of the best of the entire evening. She does bring out the cold, callous stepmother that does make you want to call Child Protective Services. But she brings forth some genuine motherly love to Cinderella. But in very small doses, as any evil stepmother would. Glover is wickedly delightful in her performance.
Kaitlyn Davidson and Aymee Garcia portray the stepsisters. Again Beane’s book has stripped away the cardboard cutout characterizations for these roles. Davidson is Gabrielle, the stepsister who is very kind and sweet to Cinderella. She also happens to have a huge crush on Jean Michel! Davidson brings a warm, loving subtext within her character in regards to Cinderella that is quite touching. Davidson also has the comedic chops to bring forth loud laughter from her performance. Her Act II scene with Cinderella in which both girls reveal secrets has Davidson providing some solid laughter!
I actually have seen Aymee Garcia (no relation by the way!) on Broadway before. First as Madame Thénardier in Les Miserables, then again in Avenue Q. So I already was prepared for her astonishing razor sharp comedic talents, and she did not disappoint here as Charlotte, the stepsister who is bitter and mean towards Cinderella. Garcia’s comedic timing, pace, and delivery layered with her facial expressions and body movements practically stole the show! She’s a powerhouse of comedy, which is in full display in her Act II solo “Stepsister Lament”. Normally this is sung by both sisters. Here it is only sung by one sister (Garcia) and the ladies of the palace. And guess what? It works infinitely much, much better now than in the original version. Ms. Garcia goes for the laughs and slays the audience in laughter. Her book scenes also are filled with hilarious laughter. Costumed in layers of various shades of pink, she looks like a cupcake with all the toppings! She is the scene stealer of the night!
I see a pattern when it comes to Rodgers + Hammerstein’s musicals, and that is that there is always one female character that is the voice of reason and serves as the “mother” to the leading female within their catalogue of history making musicals. Think about it. For Sound of Music there is The Mother Abbess for Maria, in Carousel it is Nettie Fowler for Julie Jordan, in The King and I it is Lady Thiang to Anna. For Cinderella, it is the Fairy godmother.
As an actor of color myself, I must applaud the producers and creative team of this tour to cast non-traditional the role of the Marie (Fairy godmother) with Kecia Lewis. She is a very beautiful woman who gives a performance that the audience falls in love with. When Ms. Lewis took her curtain call Tuesday evening, she received a thunderous ovation of applause and cheers, and she deserved it! As the crazy beggar woman of the village (shades of Sweeney Todd here!) she gives this characterization a hilarious physical walk, but also this layer of a woman who is missing a couple of sandwiches from her picnic basket if you catch my drift. Costumed in heavy layers of thick fabrics in neutral tones and grey wig, Lewis embodies the old woman with odd tics, but a loving heart towards Cinderella. But when she transforms before your very eyes into Marie, stand back and take it all in! She becomes a stunning looking goddess swathed in one of the most spectacular costumes ever designed for a musical. Layers of silk, satin, and chiffon in various shades of purple, dusted with a spray of rhinestones. The bustle is a massive creation of boning to give her this magical shape. To complete the look is a perfectly designed and coiffed wig of curls. Lewis literally takes your breath away when revealed as Marie. She has instinctive comedic timing and delivery that has the audience guffawing loudly. But what touches your heart is the loving, caring affection she gives to Cinderella. She’s the mother that Cinderella never had. Lewis ebbs so much love and concern for this girl, it touches the audience deeply. But then that soprano singing voice pours out of her! Ms. Lewis has that rare voice than can switch in an instant from Broadway belt to operatic overtones without a crack. She belts with incredible breath control with her vibrato serving as solid ground for her notes to crest on. Her duet of “It’s Possible” with Cinderella (Paige Faure) is a major highlight. But it is her solo in Act II (a new song) titled “There’s Music in You” that is a showstopper! Lewis soars vocally within the number, and when the music transposes into a higher key, she sings with effortless vocal finesse. Ms. Lewis will steal your heart with her splendid performance as Marie.
In this new Cinderella, we no longer have Prince Charming, but instead Prince Topher, played by Andy Huntington Jones. The role no longer is a one dimensional character as in the past. Beane worked his writing magic here again within his book. Topher is a highly educated royal who also doesn’t have either parent alive (like Cinderella). That subtext of two young people without parents who fall in love radiates from Jones and Paige Faure (Cinderella). The political thirst of Sebastian (Woodman) shields Topher away from the laws and sanctions he is creating on “behalf “of the kingdom. Jones superbly portrays a confused royal who knows he is meant to do more than slay dragons or a massive pray mantis, which he does in Act I.
Jones, like his co-stars, brings to the table a fantastic talent of comedic timing and delivery. With his boy band looks, he doesn’t stick to the “been there done that” portrayal of the Prince. He brings immense warmth, kindness, and realistic subtext of a conflicted royal who takes the reins of leading his kingdom the right way. Jones has dynamic stage presence that fits his characterization like a glove. His romance and affection for Cinderella is real and honest, devoid of that saccharine blandness that the role tends to be covered in. Jones possesses a marvelous tenor voice that wafts over the audience with pristine, crystal tonality. His diction is right on the money. Within his vocal range he has a remarkable falsetto that works so beautifully within several of his songs. He adds volume to the falsetto that really make his vocals have muscular strength. This talented actor provides massive laughs, honest romance, a multi-dimensional characterization, and a gorgeous singing voice resulting in giving the audience a superlative performance.
President and Managing Director Michael Jenkins and Dallas Summer Musicals have brought in national tours containing both current and future Broadway talent. Several of these performers have gone on to major success, and we as DSM audience members can say we saw them before they became major stars! I still remember when I saw Jersey Boys at DSM I wrote in my review that the standout performance was provided by a then unknown Andrew Rannells. He would go on to earn a Tony nod for Book of Mormon and is on HBO’s critically acclaimed Girls. When I reviewed Xanadu when it arrived to DSM I wrote that Max Von Essen was a star in the making. He is now currently in the critically acclaimed new Broadway musical An American in Paris, which earned him a Tony nod. I praised the work of Brian Justin Crim and Ruby Lewis from We Will Rock You, they have gone on to major success both on stage and in the recording studio. When Evita came last season, I praised the work of Josh Young (Tony nominee for Jesus Christ Superstar) and Caroline Bowman. Young is about to begin previews of the new Broadway musical Amazing Grace in the lead role while Bowman is now portraying Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway.
So let me add another name to that list, Paige Faure. She gives that rare performance that makes you think, “This girl is going to be a star”. Talk about tackling a tough role. She hardly ever leaves the stage, has an armful of solos, duets, trios, and company numbers to sing, tons of book scenes, and has an array of characters surrounding her that she must connect with. And that’s not even counting the choreography she must execute and handle. Finally like a seasoned magician she has to tackle the dazzling magical special effects of transformations right on stage! Well Ms. Faure handles all of those requirements with such blazing talent that I predict in her future a Tony award.
Physically this girl melts your heart. She has those stunning features that Shakespeare and Jane Austen write pages and pages regarding physical beauty of women within their works. Her stage presence is so commanding that it blinds the audience, you just cannot take your eyes off of her. Thanks to Beane’s new book, this Cinderella is not the stereotype that we have seen over and over again in film, TV, and stage of the young ingénue. Faure gives Cinderella great strength, determination, and dignity. She does not allow her character to wallow about the stage with the ole “woe is me” lament. She gives her respect and an iron backbone to handle the cruelty of her stepmother. Faure is always in the moment, no matter who is on stage with her. She connects with everyone, from ensemble to leads. Her facial expressions pour out what her heart and mind are thinking, that we the audience can see it so vividly. For example, when Madame rips Cinderella’s dead father’s coat (the only thing she has left of her father), her facial expressions show such hurt and pain. It does not come off fake or cookie cutter musical theater acting, but from a root of honesty and truth. That’s how Ms. Faure tackles the role all evening long.
When it comes to the comedic side of the role, Faure again earns endless gold stars for her stellar efforts. She delivers some of the best laughs of the night with her work. Her comedic craft will have you in constant laughter.
Her chemistry with Jones (as Prince Topher) is deeply romantic and honest, with a delicious layer of humor as well. They both connect so beautifully on stage that the romance does not come off fake whatsoever. It is completely devoid of that sugary aftertaste that makes you schedule an appointment with your dentist. Romance in musicals is difficult to pull off, especially in musical comedy. I’ve seen way too many actors that play the love interest roles that fall through the trapdoors of faking romance or show not a drop of believability. Thankfully Faure and Jones never fall into that trap. Faure also has a very soothing and heart tugging connection with Marie, her fairy godmother (Lewis). This is the first time that I have seen a real mother/daughter subtext being created by these two characters, and that’s thanks to the work of Faure and Lewis. Faure’s characterization and attention to be in the moment also connects with Madame (Glover) and her two stepsisters (Davidson and Garcia). You can see Faure’s Cinderella trying so hard to make a crack in that ice wall that her stepmother has wedged between them on some loving level.
Finally that stunning, extraordinary soprano voice! Faure sings many of the very familiar, classic R&H songs that we all know from the first downbeat from the orchestra. But Faure creates her own interpretation of both lyric and voice that make each song sound so new, fresh, and fascinating. These beloved songs in the delicate hands of Fraue sound wonderfully original. She has a high caliber, incredibly remarkable soprano voice that sparkles and glitters in every song assigned to her character. If Rogers and Hammerstein were still alive today and heard Faure’s singing voice, they would rush to the piano and create a musical just for her! Fraue is the star of this national tour who I predict will make her mark on Broadway as a new leading lady.
If you have read my reviews or know me personally, then you know how I find the war horse musicals a very tedious and excruciating nightmare to sit through anymore. I totally get that they are classics and greatly achieved the artistic growth of the American musical theater. But jeez, if I had to sit through one production of Sound of Music, Oklahoma, or The Music Man, I would rather have the queen Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones feed me to her dragons than to sit through those musicals again. If a director and theater does do one of these classic musicals, they must dissect and go over the book and score with a fine tooth comb and create some entirely new and exciting. Go deeper into the subtext and explore new emotions. Take the score and produce vocal originality. You just cannot throw on stage the same ole, paint by number productions of the same thing. That is not artistic growth.
This new version of Cinderella was like a gusting force of freshness and artistic originality. It has multi-dimensional characters that display such new interpretations within their work. The book works a million times better than the original. The shuffling of the original songs mixed in with new ones adds so, so much more to the piece than what was there before. This revival is a million times more enjoyable than the original. It entertains both adults and children. This Cinderella is one very rare and priceless revival that you will want to see again and again!
Single tickets for CINDERELLA, from $25-$98 (pricing subject to change), are now on sale online at www.DallasSummerMusicals.org, by phone at 1.800.514.ETIX (3849), and at The Box Office, 5959 Royal Lane, Suite 542 in Dallas, TX. Mini Packs, which allow all ticket buyers to pick 3 or more shows for as low as $55, are also available online or may be ordered by mail or in person at The Box Office and by phoning 214.346.3300.
Groups of 10 or more receive a 15% discount, priority seating, and many more benefits. Please call 214.426.GROUP (4768) or email Groups@DallasSummerMusicals.org.