All Things Entertaining and Cultural
All goes along ably but without much excitement until, dressed in simple white and looking demure among other women fripped up in a panoply of colors, Paige Faure, who has earned our regard as the mistreated stepdaughter whose late father’s fortune benefits everybody but her, enters the Prince’s ball as Cinderella.
Then Andy Jones’s sweetly boyish and self-effacingly wry Prince sees her. Attraction and anticipation occur, but we have to wait for the music to strike up on Richard Rodgers’s lovely “Cinderella Waltz’ before real magic comes to the stage.
Josh Rhodes’s lush, elaborate choreography takes over, and “Cinderella” turns in the wave of a wand, a conductor’s baton, from an amiable but matter-of-fact fairy tale to an elegant, romantic, and captivating musical that thoroughly delights as Rhodes puts his dancers through a series of intricate patterns and adds balletic tone with lifts that show off William Ivey Long’s glamorous costumes and prove once again why few professionals can match the Broadway dancer when it comes to absolute verve, versatility, and skill. To their credit, Faure and Jones are prominent among the ensemble that engages us and gives something sumptuous to watch and savor.
Matters get prettier and even more charming when Faure and Jones launch into their duet, “Ten Minutes Ago,” their voices being as deft as their feet, and the simple niceness of their characters making it wistfully fulfilling that this pair has come together.
Rhodes remains a hero of this production in the next sequence, in which the Prince spends three days trying to find Cinderella, who has eluded him and his soldiers since running panicked from the ball when her dress would return to tatters and her coachmen to a fox and a raccoon at midnight.
Handsome elements are in place that could make this “Cinderella” opulent from the beginning, instead of having to grow into its potential via Rhodes’s admirable artistry.
Waiting on stage for the audience as it enters is Anna Louizos’s beautifully designed forest. The trees are clearly two dimensional, but you know they are going to move to create glades and density and other landscapes director Mark Brokaw needs to tell his story. Just as importantly, you know “Cinderella’s” producers have invested in design and that Louizos is going to take you to some lovely vistas and glens as “Cinderella” proceeds.
The forest impresses so, you expect a tone of elegance from the beginning, even though every one in the audience from ages 1 to 92, knows that Cinderella starts the story living in squalor.
A letdown comes when that story commences. It starts with the Prince doing what fairy tale princes do and defending his kingdom against giants, ogres, and dragons.
You’d think this would give Brokaw, or any director, a chance for some witty or, at least, swashbuckling stuff and set the Prince up as a hero who rightfully deserves a queen of his mettle and merit.
All of a sudden a bunch of soldiers dressed in armor enter with the Prince, also clad in silver, atop a creatively produced horse.
Ah! Before romance, we’ll have some action. Something for the little boys in the audience!
Not so. Brokaw’s staging of the Prince’s battles is paltry and offers nothing to watch.
There’s some perfunctory twisting of hips and clashing of swords. A battle of sorts takes place, and Long has designed a fierce enough adversary for the Prince, but it’s all one-two-three-and-done. There’s no real danger, and there’s no real fight. Brokaw has just filled time. He’s staged an adventure scene that has no adventure. If the intention is to establish the Prince as a hero, the scene fails because it’s all shorthand motion with no texture to involve you in a fight or make you think anything, positive or negative, about the victor.
The whole episode is an exercise in lazy storytelling, and I write about it in such detail because the sequence keeps “Cinderella” from establishing a pace or tone. If a fight scene against a dragon is flat and offers no compelling reason to watch it, how bland will the rest of the show be? “Cinderella’s” opening makes you lose interest in the show before you even see the title character or enjoy Faure’s rendition of “In My Own Little Corner.”
The idea to start with a battle scene isn’t bad. In fact, it’s a good solution to a problem that must have plagued Brokaw, and the writer of the current musical’s book, Douglas Carter Beane, who had to expand and adapt the script originally writer by Oscar Hammerstein II.
“Cinderella” isn’t written as a vehicle for the theater. Rodgers and Hammerstein created it for television. Julie Andrews starred in a live version for CBS in 1957. Lesley Ann Warren reprised the role in 1965 for a production that was recorded and can be repeated.
Although “Cinderella” is a complete musical for which Rodgers and Hammerstein composed a complete and lovely score, the problems of converting a television show to a stage production are legion.
For one thing, the original television show was timed for 90 minutes. That’s already at least a half-hour shorter than most Broadway musicals, even given today’s penchant for shows that hardly warm up before they’re over. Add the need for commercial breaks, titles, credits, and other bits of TV housekeeping, and you’re talking about 75 minutes of air time, meaning 75 minutes of actual show. Most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals don’t break until after 160 minutes, including intermission. Brokaw, Beane, and “Cinderella’s” producers have to account for all of that extra time and do something to pad the book so a Broadway or tour audience won’t think they are being short-changed.
Beane’s instinct to start with the Prince slaying predators was a smart one. So is his idea to build a subplot about a seeming rabble-rouser who wants to protest to the Prince but can’t get access to him and his decision to make one of Cinderella’s step-sisters likeable and infatuated with the rabble-rouser who returns her affection. A plot line that involved the Prince’s parents, a reigning king and queen, is scuttled. When we meet the Prince, fashionably called Topher — ugh! — he is an orphan and, though of age, guided in royal decisions by an advisor, Sebastian, who has acted as Regent since Topher’s parents died.
Something smart in concept has to be matched with something smart in execution, and this is where “Cinderella” breaks down.
As mentioned, the beast Long devises is formidable enough. He stands about eight-feet high, he’s all metallic, and he has sinister little red lights for eyes. His weapon seems to be a four-bladed sword attached to his wrists. One can imagine him doing damage in the kingdom’s villages and needing to be killed to preserve the common piece.
The battle, however, amounts to few windmill turns by a the Prince and some bouncing and pushing forward of his blades by the ogre. All the heroic action takes place off-stage. What a bore!
For “Cinderella” to take hold from its opening, Brokaw and Rhodes need to reconsider how they stage the initial scenes. The best costumes and scenery can’t disguise a first sequence that is so devoid of drama and even ineffective in establishing the characters of the Prince and Sebastian. Their byplay seems to be an afterthought. So you have a fight scene that has no tension — Never once do you fear for the Prince; the scuffle is over before there’s time to worry — and an exposition scene with no juice but, luckily, is obvious enough that it at least tells you what’s going on. It seems Brokaw is happy with providing the gist of a situation and doesn’t bother himself with involving you in it.
Things remain fairly businesslike in the scene in which Cinderella and Prince accidentally meet. Faure and Jones do a fine job of being entranced with the other upon first sight, but other than establishing that attraction, the sequence goes on without accomplishing much else. For all of the brightness and color Louizos and Long provide, “Cinderella” seems anemically pale and lifeless.
Matters improve somewhat when we get to Cinderella’s house, which Long wisely keeps from being a hovel of any kind. It’s neat timbered cottage with walls and molding that make you think of the Tudor or gingerbread houses in British and German fairy tales.
Faure is pert, and Beth Glover, playing her stepmother, Madame, adds some life to the production with her arch approach to her character’s sarcasm and snobbery.
When Glover is not part of a scene, “Cinderella” can get a little precious. Although the official name of the production is “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” to differentiate the work from its Disney cognate and its “Bippety-Boppety Boo,” Beane and Brokaw have Cinderella communing with animals and being at home in the outdoors. “In My Own Little Corner” is sung from chair on a porch rather than by a cozy fire in the house.
Whether it’s Madame and her daughters, or Cinderella, preparing for the ball, nothing is as deadly as the early scenes, but nothing accelerates the pace or ups the excitement ante.
Kecia Lewis works some nice magic as the Fairy Godmother who makes her first entrance as a kind but seemingly aggressive peasant called Marie. Long earns deserved oohs and ahs when Cinderella’s rags morph suddenly into the white gown that wows everyone, particularly the Prince, at the ball. Lewis is adept at doing all she must to turn crockery into flowers and such. By the time Cinderella’s coach, sort of a Rolls Royce bedecked in white Christmas lights, appears, and fox and raccoon puppets have become acrobatic footman with fox and raccoon-colored hair, things have picked up.
One reason is Lewis. Anyone who has seen her knows she has an extraordinary voice and a knack for acting her characters well. She finds the rhythm that makes the wonderful song, “Impossible,” command attention. The illusions going on about her help the cause, but Lewis, with her own transition and way with a tune, has increased the energy level.
Faure, by the way, did a lovely rendition of “In My Own Little Corner.”
The ball scenes snap the production into full throttle. All aspects of it, from Faure and Jones’s encounters to Madame’s attempts to separate the Prince from the mysterious woman in white, and from Rhodes’s sweeping dances to Cinderella turning a nasty game called “Ridicule” into testimonies of kindness, proceed with spirit and zest and transform a sleeper of a production into one that engages you entirely.
The second act holds the energy. It begins exactly where the first act left off, with Jones’s Prince calling, “I don’t even know your name,” and gains comic momentum as Aymee Garcia deftly leads the other disappointed wannabe queens in the sarcastic “Stepsisters Lament,” more commonly thought of as “Why Would a Fellow Want a Girl Like Her?” Two songs cut from “South Pacific,” “Now is the Time,” a song for the firebrand, Jean-Michel and the friendly stepsister, Gabrielle, and the beautiful “Loneliness of Evening” for Topher and Cinderella keep the act moving and set up the search that leads the Prince to Cinderella at last. In a way that doesn’t happen much in recent times, you leave the theater humming Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs. Days after seeing the production, the tunes — and words — of “Ten Minutes Ago,” “A Lovely Night,” Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?,” and “Stepsisters Lament” alternate in my head. The score is that effective…and addicting.
The romance of Brokaw’s production outweighs the comedy because while Glover, Garcia, Ashley Park, Blake Hammond, and others are funny, the ingenuousness of Faure and Jones individually, and as a couple, rules the day, and you look forward to seeing them together, and to hearing them sing. The actors convince that their characters’ love is immediate and real, and you sincerely want them to unite and live happily ever after (no matter what Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine have to say about that in “Into the Woods”).
Paige Faure is a winning Cinderella. She sings beautifully and dances with grace and ease. Her acting is straightforward, but she is adept at reacting expressively to things the Prince and the Fairy Godmother tell her.
Andy Jones makes the Prince likeable by playing him as he’s the guy at the ball most women would ignore if he wasn’t an eligible-to-marry royal.
That’s Jones’s charm, to be not so much gawky as the kind of relaxed guy who observes and comments candidly on what he sees. He is not a monarch to be flattered or to stand proud and pompous like a stately statue. Jones give a playful normality to Topher, an ease that makes him accessible and even a tad nerdy.
The nonchalant style carries to Jones’s posture and the delivery of his dialogue. He’s more like the character who makes apt and witty remarks than the one who is dashing and bound to win the heart of the girl. This way of playing the Prince serves him well. You want him to have someone as sensible and easygoing but as wryly aware of the world as he is, and Faure’s Cinderella fills that bill.
Blake Hammond makes up for all of the comic pompousness Jones eschews. As Sebastian, the advisor to the Prince and de facto ruler of the kingdom, he is the arbiter of taste and sophistication, and he has the snobby, fussy way about him to prove it.
In Beane’s script, Sebastian is a suave ne’er do well who routinely orders despicable acts in the name of the Prince’s authority without telling the Prince his real plans or their repercussions. One can’t help disapproving of such a character, but in writing Sebastian, Beane plays into 21st century political correctness and current ideas favored by Hollywood to frame Sebastian’s villainy. In this, he panders just as he does in setting up the character of Jean-Michel who enlists citizens to protest against loathsome policies of the Prince.
When we learn of them, the policies are loathsome but in the condescending way Beane sets up all wrongdoing in “Cinderella.” While you have to agree evil is being perpetrated, the kind of evil and its presentation can be more than a little cloying. That’s because Beane’s ideas are two-dimensional and lazy. Though efficient, they seem blatantly tossed off in a way that perfunctorily establishes mischief afoot and appeals to simplistic contemporary attitudes.
That said, David Andino is solid enough as Jean-Michel, the spokesperson for the disgruntled and one who also sours Madame’s milk by wooing Gabrielle and buying her presents such as books instead of something useful like jewelry.
Beth Glover is wonderfully ambitious and above it all as Madame. She enjoys her position as a leader of society and gets a kick out of the sarcastic remarks meant to whip her daughters into shape and debutantes and to demean Cinderella.
Glover plays her I’m-better-much-better-than-you snootiness deliciously. You don’t whether you want to speak sharply to her about her treatment of Cinderella, and all beings that aren’t her, or to grab a seat next to her and hope she’ll entertain with malicious gossip.
Ashley Park smoothly treads the contradiction of being cast as a stepsister meant to disparage Cinderella and a relatively happy, bookish young woman who loves a rebel and would just as soon be Cinderella’s friend. Park opts entirely for the positive traits of Gabrielle and plays her with a bashful sweetness. Madame is right, though, when she comments the hairdo given Gabrielle makes her look like she’s wearing a tiara made from a Bavarian pretzel.
Aymee Garica is a woman who is agile and lively in spite of her ample girth and several chins. She is totally oblivious of these shortcomings as she vies for the Prince and rues his choice of a beauty instead of a solid girl like her.
Kecia Lewis glows as the Fairy Godmother. Her smile lights the scenery as she performs the magic that allows Cinderella to attend the ball and leads in the melodic Rodgers and Hammerstein tune, “Impossible.”
Lewis is a fairly insistent godmother who will not take ‘no’ from Cinderella as she persuades to go the ball and face what is certain to be her future as a queen.
Best of all, Lewis has a lovely contralto voice that can convey wit and whimsy or inform Cinderella about “The Music in You.”
Antoine L. Smith impresses in the small part of the crier, Lord Pinkleton. His big voice and big spirit lends power and energy to the announcement “The Prince is Giving a Ball,” and his acting gives his character an air of importance and of elegance.
The Richard Rodgers score and Oscar Hammerstein II lyrics allow you to bask in songwriting that was melodic, true to a situation, heartfelt, and memorable. It is a treat to hear Faure, Jones, Lewis, Smith, and others do such justice to such marvelous and artistically constructed tunes.
“Cinderella” runs through Sunday, November 30 , at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 2 and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $115.50 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1999 or by visiting www.kimmelcenter.org.