Thomas Burns Scully
- OnStage New York Critic
When people look back at the early twenty-first century with the weary eyes of history, there are going to be five letters that come up a lot. LGBTQ. It’s a hot button rights issue that just keeps getting hotter. Whether we’re talking marriage, bakeries or bathrooms, we are talking, and that’s great. It’s fantastic that the conversation is happening. It’s sad it’s such a slow and shouty conversation, but it is a conversation. The cultural impact is being felt all over the world. Particularly in NYC and particularly in the world of theatre. It’s really quite cool. I got to see, what many would consider to be, an unexpected example of it the other day down at the SoHo Playhouse: LGBTQ Family Theatre. In a show called: ‘The Commedia Cinderella’. This show of fabulous gaiety features the best in drag, camp, and musical theatre references, as well as outrageous physical performances, bright costuming and silly voices. It’s incredible fun, for the youngest ages and upwards, and it’s definitely worth your theatre dollar.
‘Commedia Cinderella’ is Ragtag Theatre Company’s successor to last year’s ‘The Commedia Rapunzel’. I saw this at the NYC Fringe and loved it. Following the Fringe, the show encored at the SoHo Playhouse, and out of that prolonged encore came this continuation of the franchise. Like with ‘Rapunzel’, they give their outrageous modern commedia dell’arte treatment to the Cinderella story. The show begins by not beginning. The audience is told it has been cancelled. This prompts the now familiar Commedia characters to argue, get flustered, fight, and eventually agree to do the show anyway. At last they manage to get things started and, with near constant nods and winks to the audience, they tell the story of Cinderella. With the added qualifier that Cinderella is now no longer a story about looking pretty to get a prince, it is about accepting who you are and realizing your inner beauty. It’s a heck of a lot of fun, and I haven’t mentioned any of the best parts yet.
In every way, this is a stronger show than ‘Commedia Rapunzel’. And ‘Commedia Rapunzel’ was already pretty darn strong. When I saw it last year, the space they were performing in, combined with the limitations of the Fringe were holding them back. Their bright and colorful sets and costumes felt at odds with the bleak dance-studio walls they were surrounded by. and the sound system felt like it was running through a fish tank. The performances were excellent, the jokes were funny, but the space was cavernous and the acoustics poor. At the SoHo, they appear to have found a warren to call their own. It feels perfect for their purpose. On entering the space, you are greeted by warm colors, vibrant lighting and the faux-ramshackle nature of the show. It’s instantly welcoming, and stepping through the doors makes you feel like Alice diving in to Wonderland. With ambience set at a perfect eleven, and their world firmly established, the players are then free to run riot. And run riot they do.
Company leader and writer Sam LaFrage plays Arlecchino, the playful clown, (and subsequently The Fairy Godmother and others) who in this incarnation is outrageously camp and often in drag. Like a contestant pulled straight off RuPaul he delivers an endless stream of sassy quips and looks divine in a dress. Andy Dispensa plays the crotchety miser Pantalone, who also transforms into the handsome Prince, and Cinderella’s pet crocodile. He walks the line between gentle charisma and unabashed self-mockery brilliantly. Sean Barry-Parsons as Zanni (and others) is a feast of squeaky high-energy, as is Jason Hurtado, who not only plays a great Pulcinella, but a marvelously hairy-legged ‘Little Orphan Annie’ too. Billie Aken-Tyers is also a lot of fun, playing the hideous Rosetta, and then lending delicious villainy to Cinderella’s evil stepmother. Rounding out the cast is Natasha Nightingale as Columbina, and the titular ‘Cinderella’. She provides the audience’s viewpoint and has the tough task of being the show’s pillar of stability, like Graham Chapman in ‘Holy Grail’. The world around her is mad, but we can only appreciate it because she is relatively like us. Her work is excellent, and she gives the show the heart it needs.
Amy O’Neill as ‘Girl With Stick’ is a revelation.
However, as strong as the cast are individually, as a unit, they are herculean. A year of performing with each other has given them the freedom and relaxation to improvise like pros. Part of what makes this show so endearing is how they interact with the audience. They will ask the children for suggestions, chat with them, even completely derail the show based on something a kid has said. That’s what makes this show ideal for a younger audience. The cast are essentially behaving like children themselves, and they include the real younglings in their mania, so actual children feel completely welcome. However, ‘Cinderella’ is a family show, and RagTag are more than happy to cater to the fifteen and ups too. Incredibly witty verbal gags, savvy as all heck flow like jealousy at a bridal shower. Not only that, every member of the cast is a high-energy singer and dancer. They throw themselves around that stage like they’re made of flubber; belting, crooning and even rapping with the best of them. It’s a big, loud, astoundingly physical show and you would be a fool not to see it before the ticket prices suffer the Hamilton effect.
I can’t think of a single negative thing to say about this show, even for the sake of balance. A stellar cast, a script to die for, and a reckless silliness powered by good taste and native wit. You don’t stop laughing. Your children will love it, you will love it, I love it. But don’t forget that underneath all the fun and games is a kind message of empowerment: You are beautiful just the way you are. And it doesn’t feel crowbarred in or gregarious, as morals often do in family entertainment. It comes out of the show naturally, because everything builds to it. The words of the roller-skating fairy godmother, Cinderella’s fantastically eccentric costume (Designed by Angela Borst and Sam LaFrage), the warm familial nature of the Commedia concept, and, of course, the LGBTQ element. Because no one knows more about the fight for social and self-acceptance than the LGBTQ community. And its such a wonderful thing to see the iconography of the community presented here, free of the usual doom-and-gloom we associate with the struggle of non-conformity. Here we have the non-tokenistic celebration of non-conformity, and I love that. It makes this show unique, and it means you should absolutely head down SoHo way on Saturday to catch it. Bring your loved ones, your little ones, your old ones… bring all your ones. ‘Commedia Cinderella’ is legitimately great, and it deserves your love and attention.
‘The Commedia Cinderella’ is being performed by RagTag Theatre at the SoHo Theatre every Saturday Morning at 11am. It is currently scheduled to run every weekend through July 16th. Tickets starts at $25 for thirteen and unders and $39 for adults. For full show schedule, ticketing links and other details see either thecommediarapunzel.com or sohoplayhouse.com. Follow RagTag Theatre on Facebook (As Ragtag Theatre) and Twitter (@RagTagTheatre).
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)