What I love most about musical theatre is that it has the power to fill the viewer with hope and possibility. Musical theatre exists in a world of heightened existence. Where characters sing when the emotional stakes are too high to simply just talk. Where kings, peasants, sailors, and movie stars explode into dance when they are too excited to be still anymore. Where magic still exists. The magic can be quite simple – as simple as two strangers meeting in the middle of a big city and falling in love; as simple as answering that ever-elusive question “Who am I?” Other times, it is full-fledged, unashamed, fairy tale magic. Both have the ability to fill the audience with wonder, taking your breath away, causing you to think and feel, and making you wish that the everyday world could be as wonderful as it looks under theatrical lightning and with a string section underscoring each important moment.
But how do we keep the magic in a world that is growing more cynical every day? Smart Phones and reality television give us instantaneous information and answers whenever we want them. It’s getting harder to hold on to that sense of wonder that theatre requires of both actors and audience. How do writers, designers, directors, and actors keep their work fresh and interesting enough to engage a modern audience without comprising the story or artistry of the piece? Especially when approaching dated material.
I had the opportunity to see two different shows this week. One which surprised and delighted, and one that disappointed. The surprise came at the Broadway Theatre in New York, where I had the pleasure of seeing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella – the first Broadway production of the piece that the gentlemen wrote as a TV movie starring Julie Andrews in 1957. The show has had two similar television remakes – one with Lesley Ann Warren in 1965, and one with Brandy and Whitney Houston in 1997 (my favorite when I was in middle school) – and a national tour. This is the first time, however, that the show has appeared on Broadway, and it appears with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane (with two acts for the first time), beautiful new musical arrangements by David Chase, and more spirit than I have seen in any of the other versions of this classic story. Now, this new adaptation is not perfect. I want to make that clear before I start gushing. There are definitely problems in Beane’s book. He can’t seem to decide on a tone for the story – is it unabashedly bright-eyed and optimistic, or is it ironic? I, personally, would prefer the former. As I watched the show, I grew tired of the constant wink, wink, nudge, nudge. The characters of the Stepmother, Stepsisters, and Sebastian (the prince’s subversive advisor) adopted 2013-style sarcasm far too often. It seemed as if Beane was afraid to just own the optimism and naïveté of the story, but, as far as I was concerned, he should have just left it alone. I appreciated the wit that he infused into the script, and think that some of it was absolutely necessary in order to make the book seem funny to modern audiences, but we don’t need to be hit over the head with it. In fact, the best moments of the show were the ones where he left the story speak for itself. Honestly, Cinderella has existed for hundreds of years in many different forms. It is the definition of timeless.
This Cinderella gives the classic tale and large injection of confidence and empowerment. Cinderella herself is spunky and kind. She is not waiting for the prince to come and save her from her dreary life. After a chance meeting, she sees goodness in him, and wants to be able to tell him about the terrible things that are happening in his kingdom. She doesn’t lose her glass slipper, but, in fact, gives it to him so that he may find her later. Prince Topher is not full of smarmy confidence, but is very much a boy struggling to find his identity and become a man. The Fairy Godmother does not simply wave her wand and make Cinderella’s life magically better. No. She empowers Cinderella to find the strength that has always existed within her. After she transforms Cinderella’s rags into a beautiful ballgown, the pumpkin into a golden carriage, and the mice in horses, she says, “Now go to the ball. In the name of every girl who has ever wished to go to a ball in a beautiful dress. In the name of every girl who has ever wanted to change the world she lived in. Go with the promise of possibility!” We’ve heard the adage of “Anything’s possible” repeated throughout time, and I think it’s often looked at as a cheesy and naïve outlook. But I have to say, that for the two hours and twenty minutes that I sat in the Broadway Theatre, and for a good while afterward, I actually believed it. You could actually feel the entire audience leaning forward and soaking it all up. The crowd was on its feet the second the show was over, so clearly I wasn’t the only one who believed in Cinderella. You can watch a great Theatre Talk interview with Douglas Carter Beane, producer Robyn Goodman, Victoria Clark, and Ann Harada where they give insight into the choices in this adaptation here. There’s also a wonderful interview with Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana on broadwayworld.com where they discuss the brilliance of this adaptation.
This message is aided by rock-solid performances by the entire company. The voices and new choral arrangements are absolutely luscious. And Josh Rhodes’ choreography manages to be classically beautiful – “Ten Minutes Ago” feels like a moment that you might see a the New York City Ballet – and also energetic, sexy, and exciting. The casting is also excellent. Harriet Harris, Ann Harada, and Marla Mindelle are excellent as the Step family, Santino Fontana strikes an excellent blend of both goofy and charming as Prince Topher, and Victoria Clark, though sadly underused, is naturally brilliant as the Fairy Godmother.
Let us make no mistake, though. This show belongs to Laura Osnes. Osnes entered the Broadway scene in 2007 after winning the role of Sandy on the Grease TV reality show. She’s had some hits and misses over the last six years. She replaced Kelli O’Hara in the acclaimed Lincoln Center production of South Pacific and then went out to play Hope Harcourt in Anything Goes two years ago. However, trying to fill Kelli O’Hara’s shoes, and standing next to Sutton Foster perhaps did her a disservice. She finally had a chance to shine, originating the title role in last year’s Bonnie and Clyde, but the show was a flop and closed quickly. Perhaps we should all be grateful for Bonnie and Clyde’s early closing date because it made her available to play Cinderella. She owns the role in every possible way. She is a true triple threat – singing beautifully, dancing as expertly as any chorus girl, and acting up a storm. It is her belief in possibility and magic in Cinderella’s life that enables the audience to believe as well. And it most certainly does make you wish that the world could be as lovely as this show makes it look.
And if top-notch acting and a compelling story aren’t enough, you should just go see it for the costume change transformations, designed by the brilliant William Ivey Long. There’s one in Act Two which will actually have you believing in magic.