AISLE SAY Twin Cities


Adapted by John B. Davidson
Original music by Diane Cina and Hiram Titus
Directed by Wendy Lehr
At the Children's Theatre Company
2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis / (612) 874-0500

Reviewed by Steve Schroer

As a responsible critic, I would never advise you to drop whatever you're doing and rush off to see a show. After all, you might be doing something important. Most surgeries, for example, ought not to be abandoned before completion–you mustn't leave your patient gaping open on the table while you scamper away for a night on the town. Or, if you're besieging a castle, to take a month's vacation would indicate that you're not too clear on the concept of a siege. And coitus interruptus, which may in some circumstances be a wise choice, may in others be a diabolical torture.

Nevertheless I will say this much: If what you're doing is really, really important, finish it. Then rush off to see "Cinderella" at the Children's Theatre Company. Go with or without children. This is one of the most perfectly realized shows you'll ever see, as well as one of the most unusual.

What makes it unusual is that it's based on the panto (short for "pantomime"), a form of English popular theater that reached its apogee in the Victorian era and lingers on, albeit as a shadow of its former self, even today. (Remember the pantomime horse that appears in several episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus?) In a phrase, the panto is a music hall show organized into a more or less coherent play. Song, dance, comedy routines, animal acts, men dressed in women's clothing–almost anything that might amuse an audience can be crammed into a panto. The nominal plot is usually that of a folktale; and there's a traditional association with Christmas, the time of year when the most elaborate pantos were put on.

"Elaborate" hardly begins to describe what CTC and director Wendy Lehr have done with "Cinderella". Like others of its species, it's stitched together out of highly disparate materials–three worlds, as it were, which overlap to some small degree but remain more or less separate until the final scene. Let's take them one at a time.

The first, we might call the Christmas Carol World, because that's what the performers are mostly doing–singing Christmas carols–and because its Victorianish costumes evoke Dickens's Christmas story. This is the world that opens the show, in front of the act curtain, and recurs during scene changes. Scene changes are frequent, so it's important to stage these interludes with some variety; and this production does just that, employing a wide range of musical arrangements (ably supported by a pit orchestra under the direction of Anita Ruth) and sometimes the skeleton of a dramatic situation. The singers are as rosy-cheeked and brimming with holiday spirit as anyone could possibly wish; especial crowd pleasers are the clog dancers Matthew Howe, Bret Iverson, and Brian Munn.

Next we've got the Knockabout Comedy World, featuring Cinderella's wicked stepmother and two wicked stepsisters. In this world, no pun is too awful, no pratfall too exaggerated; the actors play straight out over the footlights, doing takes and inviting the audience to chat; and a random gunshot is liable to bring down a rubber chicken. Realism is definitely not a concern. Part of the joke of Gerald Drake's performance as the stepmother is that he doesn't even do a drag queen turn, much less attempt to impersonate a woman. Ann Kim, as the rotund stepsister, and Wendy Lehr (yes, the director), as her scrawny sibling, wallop each other around the stage in a manner reminiscent of the Three Stooges, while the orchestra underlines every beat with slide whistle or rimshot. Proving once again that comedy works best where there is also drama, the funniest bit is the trying-on-the-shoe scene, in which Lehr pumps her leg as if she were warming up for a karate kick, then aims her foot like a rifle into the glass slipper.

Finally we come to the crown jewel of the production–the Romantic Folktale World. At this late date, the plot holds no surprises. The ragged girl in the hearth is going to get her prince; Leah Curney and Joe Wilson, Jr., respectively, fulfill the basic requirement of looking young and winsome, and also do well what little more their roles permit them. But this isn't about plot or character. It's about spectacle. And if there's one thing CTC knows how to pull off, it's spectacle. From the period proscenium with its gilded gargoyle faces that greets the audience as they settle into their seats, to the pumpkin-hued palace ballroom with its ranks of cream-clad periwigged courtiers dancing the gavotte (actually, I have no idea what dance it was–I just like the word "gavotte") as the final curtain falls, this show is an unqualified triumph of production design.

Near the end of the first act, Cinderella is alone in the kitchen when her fairy godmother pays a visit. Without warning, the godmother changes from a slightly dowdy matron in scarlet to a sylph in blue; the tip of her wand becomes a star of light, tracing loops behind the translucent scrim walls. Suddenly the scrims fly away, opening onto a winter wonderland of ice, rocks, and a jagged cavern mouth, with snow falling thickly and the orchestra spieling madly. Then the pumpkin carriage pulls up, outlined in glowing marquee bulbs. In all my theater-going memories, I don't recall a more visually ravishing sequence. Credit scene designer Edward Haynes, costume designer Gene Davis Buck, lighting designer Barry Browning, and sound designer Reid Rejsa.

CTC has mounted "Cinderella" twelve times since creating it in 1966, and I think we can safely say that they've got it right. Forget the vulgar nonsense you may have heard about fairy tales being for children. This show is for you.

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