Cinderella For The Social-Justice Generation Mar08

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Cinderella For The Social-Justice Generation

If you think you know the tale of Cinderella, think again. The first Broadway production of the musical from Rodgers and Hammerstein has a new book from Douglas Carter Beane (Sister Act, Xanadu, The Little Dog Laughed) that takes the story out of the land of fairytales and into a modern culture concerned about social justice.

Santino Fontana and Laura Osnes. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Many of the beloved songs like “A Lovely Night,” “In My Own Little Corner,” “The Prince is Giving a Ball,” “Do I Love You?” and “Ten Minutes Ago” still grace the score adapted by David Chase and orchestrated by Danny Troob, joined by some additions from the Rodgers and Hammerstein “trunk” (songs that didn’t make it into their other musicals). The story and Cinderella’s character get a makeover, however.

The book for this musical sorely needed a rewirte. The original, penned by Hammerstein, is one of the worst books of a musical ever written. It starred Julie Andrews in a for-TV production in 1957. Later, the book was rewritten and the musical starred Leslie Ann Warren and Stuart Damon in what became an annual must-watch for girls across the nation during the 1960s and ’70s.

In 1997, Brandy starred in another update, but none of those versions ever made it to Broadway until its opening last night at the Broadway Theatre, where folks have been lining up to buy tickets that top out at $137 each like they’re invitations to a ball where the prince will select his bride (the box office reportedly did more than $1 million in sales last week during previews). I attended the Saturday matinee where the house was populated by tons of little girls dressed as princesses wearing tiny tiaras.

But will they recognize their heroine in this new version? She’s played with pluck by the lovely voiced Laura Osnes, only this cinder-sitting girl goes by “Ella” and is paired with a naive, but charming — really, really charming — Santino Fontana as Prince Topher, short for Christopher Rupert Windemere Vladimir Carl Alexander Francois Reginald Lancelot Herman, who’s giving a ball. That announcement, sung by Lord Pinkleton (Phumzile Sojola) is intermixed with “The Time s Now,” a call for social action.

This Cinderella still finds herself waiting hand and foot on a cruel Stepmother (a delightfully wicked Harriet Harris) and two unattractive stepsisters, Gabrielle (Marla Mindelle) and Charlotte (Ann Harada, whose attempts to win the prince for herself provide much comedy). Gabrielle has a softer side, however, and it attracts the attentions of a young revolutionary, Jean-Michel (Greg Hill Dreth), who calls for action against the unjust treatment of the poor by the government. When the king and queen die, a self-serving trustee named Sebastian (a droll Peter Bartlett) is left in charge until Prince Topher, off slaying odd tree monsters, can return home to the throne. (The monster slaying opens the show in a vast forest — Anna Louizos designs the set — with Topher wishing he could do something more significant with his life.)

Meanwhile, Jean-Michel’s book about how people in other countries live inspires Ella (it’s a really nice tie-in to “In My Own Little Corner” and this more pronounced, thoughtful version as directed by Mark Brokaw, is stronger than it ever has been in previous versions.) Despite the hardship she endures, Ella continues to show kindness to everyone, especially “Crazy Marie,” (the always excellent Victoria Clark), a sort of homeless forest dweller who turns out to be her fairy godmother.

Marie changes Ella’s rags into a beautiful white ball gown and a pumpkin and her fox and raccoon friends (puppets handled by Heidi Gilberson and Laura Irion) into a golden coach with footman and driver (Andy Mills and Cody Williams). The special effects use some nifty lighting (designed by Kenneth Posner), but hardly conceal how the magic happens (and Marie’s new gown, designed by Costumer William Ivey Long, is rather silly looking to accommodate two large flexible ball frames at er hips that are necessary later for her to look like a giant butterfly while flying around.)

Ella meets the prince at the ball (a masked one — now doesn’t that make more sense since the prince can’t identify Cinderella after she leaves??) where she encourages everyone to play nicely and displays her ballet talent in Choreographer Josh Rhodes’s dances until midnight when she flees (I personally didn’t hear Marie warn her about that). She pauses to tell Topher that he has to do something about how his government is treating the people. With that, she goes — remembering to take her glass slipper with her.

But don’t fret. Topher decides to hold a “banquet” which he hopes the mystery girl of his dreams will attend, and she does, this time in a golden gown that makes a much more impressive transition from rags than its predecessor did. Ella arranges for the prince to meet with Jean-Michel, Gabrielle and the villagers. They realize that maybe Topher’s not such a bad guy after all and the prince, beginning to understand that Sebastian has been taking advantage of him, focuses on learning how to govern. He nominates Jean-Michel to run against Sebastian for the post of prime minister. Should things continue the way they are or they way they could be? Let the people decide, he decrees!

While the show is entertaining, with a lot of humor to entertain the adults bringing all those little ones to the theater, the overwhelming political message is annoying. I fully expected to see a Hope and Change of an Occupy banner displayed at the ball. Can’t kids just be kids and enjoy a fairytale?

Overall, however, it’s highly entertaining and lavishly done. I did enjoy Beane’s decision to have Gabrielle and Cinderella become friends and there is a particularly moving moment when Ella forgives her stepmother. The new songs blend well with the old and there are some beautiful duets for Osnes and Fontana who are perfect in their roles. This is Osnes’ breakout role. The show’s strength, besides the score, is in its flawless casting across the boards.

And special kudos go to Music Director/Conductor Andy Einhorn, conducting the large orchestra. I never have seen a conductor smile and so obviously enjoy the music of a show before.

Cinderella has a lovely night at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, NYC. Tickets: 212-239-6200; 800-432-7250 outside NYC; http://www.cinderellaonbroadway.com.

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