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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Ever After — Paper Mill Playhouse

untitled (104)Talk about enduring stories!

The Cinderella tale continues to attract people will variations of it flourish and find new creative expression.

Among the latest of these is the musical, “Ever After,” by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goodrich, being given its world premiere is grand fashion at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse.

“Ever After” goes backwards in time in three significant ways, all of them enchanting, one of them exhilarating.

Book writer and lyricist Heisler borrows her story from the 1998 movie that starred Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott as the romantic icons, Cinderella and Charming, and included scenes from the 15th century French court and the fanciful appearance of Leonardo da Vinci.

That Medieval setting devised by screenwriters Susannah Grant, Andy Tennant, and Rick Parks serves Heisler and Goldrich and “Ever After” designers Derek McLane (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes), and Leah J. Loukas (wigs and makeup) well as they make use of Middle Ages trappings — Gothic structures that serves as homestead and palace, an array of colorful, wittily conceived gowns, and fairy tale hairdos — to tell a love story that never loses its luster.

“Ever After” may be solidly middle-of-the-road. It certainly breaks no new ground and makes no attempt to be edgy or commentating.

That’s among its virtues. Instead of succumbing to the modern penchant to say something or move the American musical forward an inch, Heisler and Goldrich blessedly return to the simple entertaining days of yesteryear when big musicals — and “Ever After” is big — were frothy and earned their merit by the ready wit and honest sentiment within their material and looked to give people a good time rather than to rail, teach, or editorialize.

The best and most laudatory of Heisler and Goldrich’s achievements is they let a romance unfold merrily, using the bumps in true love’s course to create complications, mostly about class and social station, some dealing with lies that make people second guess or the meanness and jealousy one person might show or feel for another, but always finding a route back to happiness and common sense while avoiding the dangerous pitfalls of cliché or sappiness. Heisler and Goldrich, aided by director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, are competent enough and creative enough to tell their story of successful, requited, genuine love by presenting lead characters that are so rational, frank, compatible, and without the airs their intellect or royal status may breed, we relish seeing them link and look forward to having all complications removed, so they can wed and predictably fulfill the title’s promises.

Heisler and Goldrich have given us a smart musical. Heisler’s lyrics are sharp and funny. They tell stories and reveal a character’s intentions in the way masters like Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II did, and not in the plaintive, one-note, or banal way current lyricists have forced us to accept as the best we’re likely to get. Goldrich’s music has style and bounce to it. It harkens back to a time when melodies had purpose and did not sound like a monotonously perky jingle from a commercial or, worse, some corny rock derivative. The composers took care to provide substance and quality, traits one has to be grateful about receiving in half measure in most new works. It is no accident that the two best scores on Broadway right now are by George and Ira Gershwin (“An American in Paris”) and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (“The King and I”).

1998 and Da Vinci’s era may earn a respectful nod. The greatest, most admirable, most gratifying of Heisler and Goldrich’s returns to the past is a musical that has the taste and temerity to reflect and rekindle the great shows of the ’50s and ’60s while being thoroughly delightful to a contemporary audience.

“Ever After” is not without flaws. It has one scene, however amusing and exciting, that seems to come out of nowhere, and it needs to be cut judiciously in the last 20 minutes leading to its conclusion — Heisler and Goldrich have such a wealth of material, they cling to bits of it they need to surrender. — but these are relatively inconsequential glitches that can be fixed easily as the show wends to Broadway, a fate that seems as deserved as it is inevitable.

One song, “My Cousin’s Cousin,” exemplifies the total and craft of Heisler’s writing, and of “Ever After” in general.

It’s set at a moment when both Cinderella, whose actual name in Danielle, and the prince, Henry, heir apparent to the French throne, meet while trying to escape complications in their lives, dilemmas or dissatisfactions that are caused by others.

Cinderella is preening in a wooded area near her home, playing belle of the ball by tossing the full skirt and enjoying the luxury and colorful design of a dress her stepmother, Rodmilla, detests but is wearing at an artist’s request while getting her portrait painted.

The young woman is having a good time while taking a break from the endless roster of chores she must perform to satisfy Rodmilla, her father’s wife who inherited his property when he died suddenly before he could settle his ancestral estate on Cinderella.

Mid-twirl as she enjoys the elegance of the dress, Cinderella just about collides with Henry, who is leisurely riding his horse on a mission to be anywhere but the castle, where his parents, King Francis and Queen Marie have been nagging him to get married and take on more of the regal responsibilities he will face when he rules France.

To borrow another musical’s title, the result is kismet. Eyes meet, voices stammer, and Danielle and Henry are as aware as everyone in Paper Mill’s audience that they are in love.

Credit Margo Seibert and James Snyder for making that moment of chemical connection occur. The actors allow you to see the cognitive spark that ties the young couple to each other and appears through the rest of the production whether Danielle and Henry meet by accident, surreptitiously, or on purpose.

Seeing a noble she realizes is the prince, Danielle becomes tongue-tied. Dressed in her stepmother’s gown, garb that belies her usual servant’s rags, she wants to live the part of well-to-do courtier and after stalling for a bit, comes up with an idea. She is In town visiting her cousin’s cousin.

Once she hits on this ruse, Danielle keeps it going, getting more and more detailed as she goes on. Her fabrications become easier to relate even as they become more embellished. No matter what Henry does, he cannot get Danielle to tell him her name. Heisler’s lyric take on a “Who’s on First?” quality as Henry keeps asking logical questions, some meant to trap Danielle into saying something more concrete and definitive, and she, thanks to Heisler, deftly dodges his best inquisitive parries.

NealBoxEventually, Henry becomes amused with Danielle’s ability to find the perfect misleading answer to his cleverest of cross-examination. Instead of getting angry, he plays along with Danielle, repeating and agreeing with everything she utters. Danielle’s deception turns into a jaunty little game that brings the young people closer in mutual esteem and attraction. Henry realizes he doesn’t really know who this cousin’s cousin is, but he is aware he is in love with her and can settle of his mother’s worries and father’s ultimatums by announcing he had found the girl he wants as his wife, and Francis and Marie can send all of the princesses from Spain, Hungary, or wherever packing, When he weds, it will be to this briefly encountered woman whose real identity he doesn’t actually know.

This pattern of intentionally vague information, events that occur in spite of characters’ careful planning to prevent them, parental will, child’s rebellion, and complications that threaten to thwart all chance at real happiness, continues in series throughout “Ever After.”

The good news is the pattern never becomes tedious or irritatingly predictable. No matter how well you know the  Cinderella paradigm and realize a shoe, reasoned logic, and genuine romance will salvage all. “Ever After” continues to brightly surprise and gives you something engaging to watch. The ingenuousness of Margo Seibert, courtly nonchalance of James Snyder, and the entertaining work of others, including Charles Shaughnessy, Julie Halston, Seán Martin Hingston, and the lively Charl Brown, contribute to the likeability and watchability of this musical. Because they don’t fall into stereotype and keep their characters at a human level, “Ever After” stays light and diverting even when you know what has to happen in a given sequence. Christine Ebersole, Mara Davi, and Annie Funke as Cinderella’s step family tend to perform more as expected, but each has moment in which to distinguish herself, and Davi, playing the more egregiously spoiled and dismissive sister, manages ultimately to break free of her character’s confining mold and show some acting mettle. Tony Sheldon is amiable as Da Vinci, but neither the actor nor the character become more than handy device to more some action forward and to solve a conundrum or not that threatens the French court’s contentment.

Paper Mill Playhouse mounts Broadway caliber productions, and Marshall’s “Ever After” is no exception. Banners can come down from battlements while Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting cranks to full brightness to create an opulent court. Kaczorowski can also help Cinderella’s small room look bleak, a meadow look sunny, or weather look ominous.

In general, the production remains upbeat in keeping with Danielle’s story.

This is “Cinderella,” so of course Danielle has to be taunted by Rodmilla, a rather haughty woman who uses her late husband’s worth to acquire social station and give the impression of being rich though she is actually selling heirlooms and household treasures to finance the extravagance she believes will pay off when her daughters marry well. Rodmilla has especially high hopes for her older, prettier daughter, Marguerite, played by Davi. She would gladly sell Danielle with the estate furnishings and threatens to do just that to the dealer who is buying her other wares, a man who is attracted to Danielle in a course way. One of the darker passage of “Ever After” comes when Rodmillia arranges for Danielle to at least serve the furniture dealer as his housemaid.

Da Vinci acts primarily as a deus ex machina, a man called upon to be wise as predicaments begin to wobble and save the day in terms of romance and art. Marshall is particularly shrewd about having Shaughnessy and Halston play their parts as if they were everyday parents concerned about their adult son’s career and romantic choices. Neither pushes the royal card as much as the pretentious Rodmilla does even though they are the king and queen and can send someone to the guillotine, already invented for the purposes of “Ever After,” as soon as invite them for a pleasant afternoon of tea and conversation.

Shaughnessy can play the stern father and harried monarch, but he also shows Francis’s charming side, the traits inherited by his son, Henry, who is often called “Charming.” Shaughnessy is especially entertaining when he joins dancers in a light soft shoe or makes a similar move to show Francis knows how to mingle with his subject and earn their affection.

Halston is practical and domestic is her approach to the queen. She is almost a housewife and hostess making sure all is satisfactory for her guests, and she dotes on her son.  You can see Marie’s skill at learning what she wants to know during a pivotal scene in which the queen is entertaining Rodmilla at court in an effort to ascertain exactly whom her cousin’s cousin is. This passage gets an extra jolt of comedy because Rodmilla is under the impression she has been invited to the palace to discuss a union between the prince and Marguerite.

The scene plays well. Halston plays Marie’s cunning beautifully, and Christine Ebersole, as Rodmilla, is a good foil for her.

Ebersole gives two performances. One is offhand, the other shows the artistry that had made her such a Broadway favorite.

Unlike Shaughnessy, Halston, or even Charl Brown, who takes a functionary character and makes him notable and looked for, Ebersole doesn’t always endow Rodmilla with full character. In sequences in which Rodmilla’s role in mainly to toss off insults at Danielle and display her meanness and disdain for the girl, Ebersole practices what I call Bernadette Peters Syndrome, a malady from which an actress, knowing she is a star who has proven her mettle and earned unending respect and popularity, stops creating characters or giving her performances the texture that assured her acclaim and begins playing scenes line by line looking for the laugh or the exaggerated bitchiness/sweetness/what have you at the expense of an invested characterization in which the star plays her character the same way every time and builds on that character’s arc as a play develops.

In passages in which she’s just being bossy around Danielle and her daughter, Ebersole gives almost no thought to Rodmilla’s total character. She is too busy line barking, measuring every syllable of her delivery for its hambone effect.

Heisler’s lines are funny. They’re precise and arch and show that Rodmilla is no slouch at being strategically and formidably clever, even if Ebersole is slouchlike in her delivery of some of them.

Ebersole is content to draw in a type, as if she was doing a television comedy sketch and playing to a camera instead of establishing a character and conveying it to the audience. She works in half measures, just enough to make the line juicily entertaining while the audience has to notice that Heisler designed Rodmilla to be nobody’s fool. This is a woman who can, if it suits her objective, be sweet and persuasive, giving anyone in her presence the idea that ostentatious elegant though she is, she can also be down-to-earth and generally kind of the fellow man.

Heisler provides more to play than Ebersole deigns to give us. We glean it in spite of the actress being stingy about overexerting herself to actually create a character. Ebersole is, after all, artist and professional enough to know how to entertain, but in scenes in which Rodmilla is roundly displaying her bullying malevolence, to her daughters and household servants as well as to Cinderella, she lets the obviousness of her role take over and saves herself for passages that might require more finesse.

That’s the dual nature of Ebersole’s performance, which indicates she hasn’t become Bernadette Peters just yet. When a sequence has some genuine pith, a indicative note that will show how cunning Rodmilla is when parrying with an equal or saying something she wants understood so clearly, she chooses not to couch in in Rodmilla’s usual florid and high-handed style, Ebersole uses all of her talent to create some intense and textured moments.

She gets away with what she can when laughs and hauteur are all that need to be established but settles intelligently and dimensionally into sequences which require some sincerity or revelation from Rodmilla. You see the deeper character in the luncheon scene with Halston. You see if full, impressive force in the passage in which Rodmilla wants no more of Danielle, who has ruined Marguerite’s chances of being Henry’s bride and who she only kept after her husband’s death to prevent people from talking about how cruelly she treated an orphan, the daughter of the man whose wealth she inherited, in place of Danielle, wealth that allowed her to live in luxury and to be on such a footing, a prince could consider marrying one of her daughters without having to think about class or social standing.

Ebersole is deft and meticulous as she remains cool, even while hearing surprising information, when the queen asks her what she knows about this alleged cousin of hers, one who has awakened the prince’s heart and taken him beyond romance to actual love. You see at last the shrewdness of both the actress and Rodmilla’s character.

Ebersole is even better in the scene is which she at last comes clean with Cinderella and says to her, plainly and without pulling or softening the most hurtful punch, how little she’s cared about her and how her entire ambition was to secure a place for her daughters and render Cinderella what she is, a servant doing the bidding of people who live on her father’s money.

Ebersole rises to the occasion. The passage comes in the last 20 minutes of “Ever After,” a time at which, for all the show’s merriment and entertainment value, you’re ready for a solution, but it arrests because Ebersole and Margo Seibert are so direct and honest with each other. The sequence is a bit of classic drama within what is rightfully a fairy tale, and it’s affecting, so much so, the dialogue between Ebersole and Seibert is enough, and you barely need the song, “Done,” that underscores all Rodmilla and Cinderella have covered, along with the added information Rodmilla has already made a bargain to dispatch Cinderella to the home of the furniture merchant, where she can live as a slave, an abused servant, or a concubine for all Rodmilla cares or wants to know.

untitled (102)At this point, she just wants Cinderella out of her life and somewhere she won’t be found by the prince who, in a passage that is not totally convincing within the context of “Ever After,” has turned away from Cinderella as a liar and a social inferior. This is one time Heisler plots based on needing a complication and doesn’t consider she’s established the love between Henry and Danielle as eternal and unconditional. The prince’s fit of pique makes no sense except to be a late-inning glitch in true love’s course. It doesn’t quite work as it’s intended because we don’t believe what Henry is saying to Danielle and his parents for a moment. It does, however, give Heisler time to create the confrontation scene between Rodmilla and Cinderella and to who how Cinderella is treated by the furniture merchant who we have seen wooing her but eventually acquires her through default.

Most of “Ever After” plays logically. The first act contains one scene, engineered so Henry and Danielle can meet by accident a second time, that surprises because there’s no foreshadowing of it. It arises from the blue.

While enjoying their second — now that I think of their third, as in three’s the charm — encounter, they are beset by a band of gypsies who kidnap Danielle, who they declare their queen, and enter into eight-on-one combat with Henry, who, in fairy tale fashion, vanquishes all attackers with his superior royal training at horse, fencing, and general martial arts.

The sequence just materializes, but it comes in the first act while any scene is as welcome as another, and it gives Marshall the chance to include one more big production number, “All Hail the Gypsy Queen,” that is quite rousing and matches over large numbers that appear throughout “Ever After.”

Seán Martin Hingston is especially entertainment as the gypsy leader.

The star of “Ever After” is Margo Seibert, who for the second time is two seasons,  wonderfully portrays a major character who is pivotal to the musical and garners the most attention and sympathy.

Last season, Seibert played Adrian in the Broadway production of “Rocky.” Her praises, if sung at all were not sung loudly, a happenstance I think was unfair. Seibert was a touching, realistic Adrian who warmed you in her first scenes in the pet shop where Rocky wooed her and impressed with her duckling-to-swan transition.

Even in a fairy tale such as “Ever After,” reality and vulnerability remain the core of Seibert’s performance, and she is once again excellent. You can see both the serious nature and the resignation of her Cinderella. The breeding and care Danielle received before her father died is evident. Seibert makes it so. You believe this young woman clings to her late father’s brand of scholarship and gentility and cherishes the copy of Thomas More’s “Utopia” that was her Dad’s last gift to her.

This Cinderella is a woman with the poise, goodness, and conversational ability to entertain a prince and be a suitable lifetime companion for him.

She is almost like a Jane Austen character, maintaining her self-worth and self-esteem while laboring unmercifully for two women, a stepmother and stepsister, who appreciate nothing she does and treat her as badly as they do the other domestic help, and a second stepsister, who is a tad kinder and empathetic to Cinderella’s plight.

As in “Rocky,” Seibert can show attractiveness in plainness and cleans up real well when it comes time to go to a ball or show Henry her genuine social prowess.

James Snyder, is addition to being classically handsome, is marvelous as conveying the ordinary normality Henry wants to be the dominant trait of his life. This prince is well-read and well-trained, He, by his calculation, and begrudgingly by his father’s, is ready to lead France when his turn comes.

Henry is not the conventional royal. He doesn’t want to be told whom to marry, even if a connubial liaison would soften relations between France and Spain. He prefers spending as much time reading and studying modern politics and economics as he does riding his horse, practicing his military exercises, or being courteous to people who bore or appall him.

Yet, knowing all monarchs carp about having to be nice to their subjects, he can be affable while being kingly on the surface.

Snyder and Seibert make you believe their attraction, their mutual infatuation, and their abiding love. There is a chemistry between them that makes “Ever After” even more romantic. Snyder is every inch a prince and by every instinct, a common man who can get along with the public and who will reign accordingly when his time comes.

Charl Brown is vibrant as the king’s chief of affairs. Always looking bright, attentive, and ready to tackle the headiest challenge, Brown’s principal advisor seems to be the leader at court.

Brown doesn’t treat his part as a functional throwaway. He endows his character, Captain Laurent, with a lot of personality and cunning about how to achieve certain goals that come with being at a royal court.  Brown gets his due by leading two productions numbers, including the second act centerpiece, “Is There Anything Leonardo Can’t Do?” and being a major and welcome presence throughout Marshall’s staging.

Mara Davi goes over the top as the petulant, snobbish Marguerite, but that is the best thing for her to do. Unlike Rodmilla, Marguerite has no shades. She’s all confident, entitled pride and bold ambition. She will, if she can help it, be the future queen of France, and Davi leaves you no doubt Marguerite thinks that while keeping the character and comic as she is obnoxious. Annie Funke, as the younger sister who would just as soon eat as she would dance to marry a prince, is fun to watch as this is one girl who knows what she enjoys and also one who is so nonchalant and so uncompetitive, she manages to attract an eligible, and pretty extraordinary guy. Brown’s Laurent.

Fine work is turned is by Liz McCartney, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, and Nick Corley as Rodmilla’s servants and Cinderella’s friends. John Hillner brings the right amount of roughness and uncouth to the role of the furniture dealer.

Alas, Tony Sheldon is amiable as Leonardo, and fulfills the role with distinction, but for all we hear about Leonardo, and all he fixes as Heisler’s plot goes forward, the part remains fairly bland. Brown’s Laurent and Shaughnessy’s king overshadow Leonardo as a figure on stage. Leonardo fades into the scenery as a likeable old man who benignly makes thing happen the way he hope they will.

‘Ever After” is big, bright, sensitive, witty, and entertaining. I’m sure this Paper Mill world premiere presages a great future for Heisler and Goldrich’s musical.

“Ever After” after runs through Sunday, June 21, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, in Millburn, N.J. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $127 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 973-376-4343 or by visiting www.papermillorg.

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