The NETworks tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" is definitely not your mother's Cinderella. Sure, there's a cinder-cheeked orphan who turns into a beautiful woman to meet the prince at a ball she's been forbidden to attend. Little else is as you imagined. Some could argue that it barely resembles Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1957 teleplay. The new stage adaptation by Tom Briggs, with arrangements by Andrew Lippa, is closer to the recent Whitney Houston-Brandy film, including two tender songs it pulled from other Richard Rodgers works ("The Sweetest Sounds" and "There's Music in You"). A touch of Seuss-ian warped shapes and Disney-esque creatures, with a dash of contemporary phrases and a bit of a rock and calypso beat, transplant this musical for today's audiences. The result is a fairy tale that's more zany and enchanting than romantic.
Did you ever envision Eartha Kitt as a fairy godmother? The chanteuse still purrs and slinks in a glittering evening gown slit up the thigh. She possesses a "been there, done that" wisdom that forces Cinderella to take responsibility for realizing her wishes before adding her own touch of class to the occasion. As Cinderella quips, "With a fairy godmother like that, who needs a stepmother?" But Kitt adds an emotional core that is wistful, suggesting the mother who has missed seeing her daughter grow up. She leaves the deepest impression of the entire lavish, comic production.
With a godmother like that, the stepmother must be a real piece of work, and with Everett Quinton under the makeup, she is. Here, the Ridiculous Theatrical Co. alumnus is a Mad Hatter with a green boa, a magenta polka-dot dress, and an orange explosion of hair. She pushes her overwhelming daughters to marry because she wants to retire to a cottage by the sea. That doesn't stop her from hitting on the prince's steward herself. Most of the time, Quinton fusses and snaps at the foolish, whinnying Joy (Alexandra Kolb) and the bossy, itching Grace (NaTasha Yvette Williams).
The Prince wastes no time rejecting these social-disaster sisters at his ball. An independent-minded young man, he has his own nagging mother to deal with. Paolo Montalban, who played the same role in the 1997 Disney television production, just might gain the audience's admiration as quickly as he does Cinderella's: at first sight. If his handsome appearance alone doesn't win you over, then his clear, strong singing voice should.
As Cinderella, Deborah Gibson doesn't match up musically to her prince charming, unfortunately. Her voice is lighter, and she often scoops pitches and relies on vibrato rather than firmly hitting and holding a note. What works for pop music doesn't always work for musical theatre. (Gibson is leaving the tour after its Cincinnati run, which coincides with the release of her new CD. She will be replaced by Jamie-Lynn Sigler of "The Sopranos" for the tour's run through summer.)
Even though Cinderella is rejected by her step-family, she's never alone in this production. Her friends are mice, a cat, and a bird, cleverly and amusingly realized as puppets. Connecticut-based Integrity Designworks used a rod system that allows one puppeteer to manipulate each critter's head and lower body. The actors (Kip Driver, Kevin Duda, Jason Ma, Jason Robinson, Patrick Wetzel, and Andre Ward) often kneel as they watch their animals comfort Cinderella and chatter in high-pitched gibberish. It's like watching the mice in Disney's old animated "Cinderella", even if these don't sew her dress for the ball.
Other transformations from screen to stage are achieved with enough theatrical magic to make you believe in fairy dust. Cinderella's onstage costume changes, from the rags to the ball gown designed by Pamela Scofield, and the morphing of a glowing pumpkin into a gilded carriage are stunning. Illusion designer Franz Harary is known for applying his magic to rock tours. By using today's vocabulary of spectacle, he demonstrates the fairy tale's continuing evolution from a ninth-century Chinese tale to Rodgers and Hammerstein's original teleplay nearly forty-five years ago to a twenty-first century entertainment.
Under Gabriel Barre's direction, Briggs's "Cinderella" is an antic romp, more engaging during big comic scenes than intimate, tender ones. The show's efficiently quick pace is an improvement over the more sluggish original, and the energy rarely flags while presenting visual and verbal humor. The adaptation certainly aims at young, contemporary audiences. But how much "as if," "suck it up," and the like is needed to pepper the dialogue? The only cast recording available for sale in the lobby was from the original, with Julie Andrews. Earlier this season, Cincinnati audiences saw that "The Sound of Music" holds up well today with little tinkering. "Cinderella" shows how much musicals and attention spans have changed.
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