Michael L. Quintos
OnStage Los Angeles Critic
COSTA MESA, CA - Full confession time.
Something unexpectedly peculiar (but altogether wonderful) happened to this reviewer, a grown man, the first time I saw the "brand new," oh-so-lovely 2013 Broadway stage adaptation of Rodgers + Hammerstein's 'CINDERELLA' back when its national tour first came to Southern California more than a year ago.
You see, when the title character—the poor and ill-treated girl at the heart of this ubiquitous fairy tale—finally discovers that the "crazy" homeless woman she has befriended out of pure kindness turns out to be none other than her very own fairy godmother... and then within seconds, that fairy godmother transforms right before our eyes into this magical creature that's about to help change this beautiful girl's sad night into a lovely night... well, I started to tear up a little bit.
But then, when Cinderella's tattered outfit of rags suddenly—well, magically—transforms into a magnificent, billowing white ball gown (finished off with, you guessed it, glass slippers), I found myself even more teary-eyed.
But, wait! Then the tears continued to flow when Cinderella joyously sings that "it's possible" for one's dreams to come true, as she glided through fog and mist atop a pumpkin-turned-golden-carriage ride. What the heck is happening to me?!
By the time Cinderella finds herself at the ball, catching the eye of the handsome Prince who has, of course, fallen instantly in love with her as he begins to sing the romantic love ode "Ten Minutes Ago," I pretty much completely lost it and sobbed through a steady stream of tears until the first act finally came to an end. Yep, I apparently ugly-cried through it.
Fast forward one year later, and the Equity national tour—now in its last weeks—has finally winded itself back to Southern California, this time for a two-week stay at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through May 1 (the tour then moves on from here to its final scheduled week-long stop at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre through May 8).
And, to my delightful surprise—I experienced the same cry-fest all over again...this time, cherishing every tear-stained minute of it.
Adorable, utterly romantic, and thoroughly winsome, this stage adaptation of CINDERELLA is, admittedly, a wonderful surprise—filled with dazzling stage ingenuity; a dreamy, sweeping classic score by two legendary titans of musical theater; a revised, 21st-Century-tinged new book by playwright Douglas Carter Beane; magical Tony Award-winning costumes from the great William Ivey Long that will have you wondering "how'd they do that?" and, lastly, an ensemble cast of terrific actor-singers that will have you cheering its inevitable happy-ever-after.
While not a totally flawless show (many of the narrative additions enacted in this new version feel slightly forced and a bit removed from the story's original intent and innocence), CINDERELLA is nonetheless an entertaining, escapist musical with a good heart and a feel-good, embracing aura. Kids will fall in love with its enchanting, familiar fairy tale narrative and on-stage magic, while their parents and other adult theatergoers will appreciate its winking, modernist slant, surprisingly snarky tone, and many of its grown-folks themes—all enveloped by music most already remember. And, if you're anything like me, you too will be easily swept up by its visual and musical loveliness and its endearing, sweet love story.
It's hard to believe that it actually took this long for this particular musical version of the classic Charles Perrault fairy tale—featuring original music by the iconic team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II—to finally make it onto a Broadway stage.
Originally conceived as a short, black-and-white (at the time) 1957 made-for-TV musical that was broadcast live starring the one and only Julie Andrews in the title role, the show was then later revived for television audiences two more times: first, in a color broadcast in 1965 starring Lesley Ann Warren, then again decades later in 1997 starring pop star Brandy Norwood as Cinderella (with mega-star Whitney Houston playing her fairy godmother).
But it wasn't until 2013 that a first-ever, fully-mounted original Broadway production finally made its debut.
In order to present a musical that's longer than its TV source material, this CINDERELLA smartly (and seamlessly) incorporates unfamiliar songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein back-catalog into the show alongside the already established songs from the TV broadcasts. For the story itself, Beane expands quite a bit from Hammerstein's shorter original book, presenting a decidedly revisionist's take on Perrault's widely-known original fairy tale that includes nods to 21st-Century ways of thinking (even the story's most famous plot detail—Cinderella's glass slippers—gets a refresh).
Sure, the story is, for the most part, what we all know, but with some interesting, well-meaning tweaks.
It still, naturally, revolves around a lovely, sweet-natured young lady, here named Ella (beautifully played by Kaitlyn Davidson) who, soon after the death of her father, is forced to live the life of a lowly housemaid for her money-hungry stepmother, Madame (the deliciously acidic Blair Ross) and Ella's two stepsisters, ditzy Gabrielle (Kimberly Fauré), who's occasionally nicer to Ella, and loudmouth Charlotte (scene-stealer Lulu Picart), who's never nice to Ella.
More broadly-painted caricatures rather than actual arbiters of evil, Ella's step-family, nonetheless, makes her life less than pleasant. So, as expected, Ella—cruelly nicknamed "Cinderella" because she's constantly covered in ashes and soot from the cinders of the fireplace—dreams in her own little corner, in her own little chair... of a better life for herself.
And here's where this CINDERELLA takes some detours from the original...
On the other side of the kingdom, the valiant but slightly naive Prince Topher (swoon-worthy Andy Huntington Jones), the orphan son of the late King and Queen, longs to "do what's right, but often does what's wrong." Though he may be a noted slayer of dragons, giants and gargoyles, Topher (short for Christopher) feels he's meant for something more—something much more important that he's terribly anxious to find out. This worries him quite a lot lately since it's almost time for him to eventually ascend to the title of King and he really wants more than anything to do a good job of it.
"Lucky" for him, Topher rules the kingdom with tremendous "assistance" from his most trusted advisor, the conniving Chancellor Sebastian (Blake Hammond), who, unbeknownst to the Prince, has actually been enacting horrible laws left and right behind the Prince's back. And worst, he's doing so in the Prince's good name!
These deplorable policies—mostly to the detriment of the poorer citizens of Topher's kingdom—enrages local loner revolutionary Jean-Michel, a new character crafted for this musical and played here by David Andino. Jean-Michel has made it his goal to ignite the townsfolk to join him in an uprising against their oppressive rulers. His loud protestations are now beginning to irritate Sebastian more and more—while Ella's step-sis Gabrielle, on the other hand, finds Jean-Michel totally crush-worthy (they carry on a relationship in secret).
So what should a governing body (well, Sebastian) do to distract the increasingly aware villagers from joining the protests and to prevent inquisitive Topher from further investigating the grievances raised by Jean-Michel and the lower-class townsfolk?
Why, throw a big, posh party, of course! In this case, an invite-only Grand Ball that will not only distract the Prince, but also bring all the eligible, not-so-poor women in the kingdom in front of the Prince—so that he may select a suitable bride from amongst them.
After a grandiose, musicalized announcement of the upcoming ball at the town square—courtesy of Sebastian's operatic henchman, Lord Pinkleton (Chauncey Packer)—the townsfolk have all but ignored Jean-Michel's rally cries for justice and have instead fixated themselves on the forthcoming fete. The women, naturally, are all a-flutter with the possibility of being selected to marry the Prince.
And, no surprise, Madame is determined to push her two daughters (well, her biological ones anyway) to the very top of that long list that will determine the Prince's bride. Since Madame and her spoiled daughters have all but depleted the fortune left behind by Ella's late father, the prospect of either Gabrielle or Charlotte winning the Prince's hand will surely guarantee a lifestyle upgrade.
The three of them wickedly laugh when Cinderella herself inadvertently lets it slip that she too has hopes to meet the Prince, not only to have the experience of going to a ball—away from the grime and soot of her harsh, every day life—but to also get close enough to the Prince to get him to open his eyes about the travesties happening in his kingdom.
But, alas, Madame voraciously rips up the tattered invitation Cinderella manages to get from the earlier hullabaloo in the town square, and forces her to stay home for more chores—while Madame, Gabrielle and Charlotte head off to the ball in their best duds.
Hurt, alone, and feeling completely hopeless, her grief is once again interrupted by an "ill-timed" visit from the village loon, Crazy Marie (the fantastic Liz McCartney), who has arrived with a crumpled, ripped invitation to the Prince's Ball (well, apparently Marie is a genius with tape and glue). Cinderella winces at the invitation's messiness.
"Don't wait for everything to be perfect!" scolds Marie.
So now, armed with an invitation, all Cinderella needs is to look the part of a ball attendee. Right now. But something like that would be, uh, you know... impossible.
Well, lucky for Cinderella, Marie soon reveals herself to be—surprise!—Cinderella's very own lovely (and not-so-crazy) Fairy Godmother™. Cinderella's genuine charity and unrelenting kindness to all made Marie's revelation possible, apparently.
This remarkably memorable scene marks the first of many glorious, eye-popping, instantaneous costume changes that will delight the inner child of even the most curmudgeonly of audience members (and, for some of us, we get a bit teary-eyed). One minute, Marie is dressed like a walking compost heap. The next, she has somehow sprouted antennae, wings, and a sparkly, wispy dress.
Though Marie—er, the Fairy Godmother—claims that Cinderella herself has her own abilities, the tenacity to make things happen, and the smarts to make things better for herself, she still offers her assistance in making Cinderella's dreams come true... via a bit of good ol' magic, of course.
"It's possible!" they sing with infectious glee.
So, much like in the original tale, the Fairy Godmother turns a nearby pumpkin into a golden carriage; mice Cinderella has caught in a trap are transformed into the carriage's horses; and her woodland creature pals are each turned into a footman and a driver, respectively.
And, yes, Cinderella gets the dress. The sight of seeing her drab, scullery maid outfit magically morph into a magnificent fluffy-white gown fit for a princess right before our very eyes is, without a doubt, an honest-to-goodness wow moment. My gosh, that dress is stunning.
As a very giddy Cinderella swooshes away into the night mist headed for the Prince's castle, her floating Fairy Godmother wishes her off, urging her to enjoy the ball—well, at least until midnight—in the name of every girl in the world who has ever had a dream like hers. Awwww.
To no one's surprise, Topher could not take his eyes off of Cinderella once she enters the grand ballroom—nor could any of the other guests, for that matter.
"I have found her!" he croons. "She's an angel!" (Uh oh, here come the tears again)
And in an interesting narrative tweak, Cinderella not only enchants Topher, but also the other guests at the party as well—all by simply being nice and kind to everyone. Apparently, it's a contagious, heartwarming activity. Unfortunately, this puts a snag on Sebastian's and Madame's best laid plans. Who is this beautiful stranger? And why is she hurriedly rushing away when the clock struck midnight?
Visually exquisite not only for Long's exceptional (and Tony-winning) costumes but also for Anna Louizos' scenic designs and Kenneth Posner's creative lighting, CINDERELLA is a genuinely captivating musical that truly lives up to its magical possibilities. Director Mark Brokaw helms the production with engaging purpose, filling every bit of the stage with something enchanting to take in, even when some of the extra story additions feel like added padding that the show doesn't necessarily need to win us over even more than it already has.
Like modern princesses of the Disney era, this version of the fairy tale heroine is spunky, smart, and fights heartily for what's right—yet still feels that kindness (even to those who are cruel to her) is always the correct path to go.
It pains me to say it, but I would have much preferred to see this newly empowered, politically-savvy Cinderella herself as the show's (secret) revolutionary voice that tries to stir the villagers into standing up for their rights—much like what our heroine herself was aching to do in her own right, and was able to actually accomplish in her interactions with the Prince (instead of being just a liaison for the awkward Jean-Michel character). It's a minor gripe, to be honest, because frankly I was too busy wiping tears of joy off my face.
Along with Josh Rhodes' splendid, ballet-like choreography moving in graceful syncopation with Danny Troob's grand, big symphony-sounding orchestrations and David Chase's gorgeous arrangements of both classic and obscure Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes, CINDERELLA boasts one of the lushest Broadway scores I've experienced since the recent revivals of SOUTH PACIFIC and FOLLIES. There is just something absolutely wonderful about a Rodgers and Hammerstein score, and here, I was just as easily enraptured and touched (on a side note, I wholeheartedly recommend getting the Original Broadway Cast Album of CINDERELLA—Laura Osnes, Santino Fontano, and the actors, artists, and musicians featured in it are just amazing).
But if there are a couple of things this new stage adaptation gets absolutely spot on right is its sense of wonder and its sweet romanticism. Accomplishing the gown transformation is one thing, but wow... how incredibly romantic this show is! Beyond any of the show's modernist touches, it's best asset is the way the show's timeless love story can still sweep you off your feet—particularly when performed by an incredible set of alluring musical theater actors.
As the show's title character, Davidson is a sensational and joyful Cinderella, displaying a beaming, wide-eyed optimism to go along with a lovely singing voice. It's no wonder the Prince is gaga for her. As her handsome beau, Jones is pretty darn awesome as the heroic but somewhat aloof Prince Topher. His goofy charm balances nicely with his undeniable suaveness. And, man, when he sings, particularly with "Ten Minutes Ago" and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?," hearts are guaranteed to melt. Together, Davidson and Jones make for a believably in-love pair that sells CINDERELLA's timeless love story with ease.
Their supporting ensemble is also uniformly outstanding, particularly McCartney as Cinderella's Fairy Godmother, and Cinderella's trio of step-family members played by Ross, Fauré, and Pickart (the latter of whom earned the evening's well-deserved biggest laughs).
Armed with a newfound purpose of making a classic heroine be more than just the lucky recipient of magical rewards, but rather someone who is able to shape their own destiny, stand up (well, to a point) to her oppressors, and to exercise her own free will through hard work and tenacity, this CINDERELLA is an entertaining spectacle with a heart while remaining a dreamy, enchanting fairy tale with an aspirational center. With its beautiful music, sweeping romanticism, and jaw-dropping special effects, this is one family-friendly musical you don't want to miss.
And if you find yourself sighing and getting teary-eyed while watching it, don't say I didn't warn you.
This equity touring production ends soon, so make like Cinderella at midnight... and run towards this show (this week in Southern California and next week in Northern California)!
** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **
Photos from the National Tour of Rodgers + Hammerstein's CINDERELLA by Carol Rosegg, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Performances of the National Tour of Rodgers + Hammerstein's CINDERELLA at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, May 1, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org