Monday, April 1, 2013

REVIEW: Rodgers + Hammerstein's CINDERELLA

Review of the Saturday, March 30 evening performance at the Broadway Theatre in New York City.  Starring Laura Osnes, Santino Fontana, Harriet Harris, Victoria Clark, Peter Bartlett, Ann Harada, Greg Hildreth, Marla Mindelle and Phumzile Sojola.  New book by Douglas Carter Beane.  Choreography by Josh Rhodes. Directed by Mark Brokaw.  2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: A

When most people conjure up an image in their head of what a "Broadway musical" is, they probably picture a certain amount of spectacle - magically changing sets and eye-popping costumes, huge dance numbers with beautiful chorines and dashing male partners, soaring ballads and comically clever numbers and a sweet, happy ending.  And if that is your thing, musical-wise, you should fall in love with Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella.  To be completely honest (and those of you read my stuff regularly know this already) all of that together in one show is something I generally dislike.  Well, maybe I'm getting soft, because this show had just the opposite effect on me.  I loved every single minute of it. The sweeter it got, the more I got into it.  The sillier it got, the happier it made me.  And if you miss this show because of any preconceived ideas, you are really missing out on one of the jewels of the season.

Laura Osnes
There are just some things most of us are unqualified to judge.  One of those things, for me, is the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.  I understand that in the spectrum of things, Cinderella is not among their most revered works.  I'm not sure why.  I can say what appeals to me of theirs and what I don't care for, and even I can recognize that the stuff they threw away from other shows is better than what most composers come up with on their best days.  This is a score full of lush, soul-searching ballads, quirky, fun character songs and thrilling dance numbers; each satisfies the moment, the ear, the mind and the heart.  Danny Troob has done excellent work, too, in orchestrating the piece for contemporary sensibilities without forgetting the rich history he is working with.

Much has been written about the new book by Douglas Carter Beane, much of it not flattering. But I say he has achieved the impossible - a smart script with a contemporary edge, and a very natural shift from the girlie girlie to the equal opportunity fairy tale, appealing to would-be princesses AND up-and-coming princes, and their ticket-buying parents.  There are plot twists aplenty - the end of act one garnered gasps and not a few "What the heck was that!!??" verbalizations.  And yes, there are politics at work here, but, let's be fair.  All fairy tales have a certain amount of politics -Wicked and Into the Woods are more subversive about it.  And much nastier.  Cinderella wants only fairness and equality for all in the land; in these days of nuclear threats, Supreme Court cases, and mass shootings what's so wrong with proclaiming loudly and proudly that the world will be a better place if we could just be nicer to each other? Simple and profound.

"The Prince Is Giving a Ball"

"Waltz for a Ball"

But this deceptively complicated mix of old fashioned musical theatre and modern thinking could have easily tanked without the proper guidance and players in place.  Fortunately for Broadway audiences for the foreseeable future, the creatives have converged to create a magical escape of both bold,epic proportions and mesmerizing, small-scale moments.  Choreographer Josh Rhodes has pulled out all the stops creating a variety of dances from the cheeky "Gavotte" to the swirling, dreamy and visually stunning "Waltz for a Ball."  He captures, exquisitely, the old school feel of the traditional Broadway production number in "The Prince is Giving a Ball."  The entire ensemble is marvelous throughout.  But the brilliant, razor sharp and breath-taking "Pursuit" is the real crown jewel of the evening - it would not be much of an exaggeration to compare it to the "Prologue" of West Side Story, what with dazzling athleticism coupled with the graceful fluidity of ballet movement.  Two dancers in the number - the footman and the driver (Andy Mills and Cody Williams) particularly shine in this spectacular sequence, garnering more than a few gasps and rounds of applause by themselves.

Scenic designer Anna Louizos and lighting designer Kenneth Posner have combined to create a mythical French provincial countryside, a small wooded kingdom full of dragons to slay and tree monsters to fell.  A place where there is as much chance for danger as there is for happiness in the shadows... it is both fairy tale like and yet completely relatable.  And like the book, just enough "princess" to satisfy the little ladies, and just creepy enough to bring joy to all the future "princes" in the house.  But the real magician of the evening is costume designer William Ivey Long, a sure Tony nominee for his work here.  Not only has he created a feast for the eyes in his rainbow of ball gowns, and his gorgeous wedding of whites and golds, but he has created two of the most amazing costume changes I have ever seen!

Harriet Harris, Ann Harada, Marla Mindelle and Laura Osnes

This Cinderella has not one, but two villains, both played with a wicked glee.  Peter Bartlett, who could rival a desert with his dry delivery, is a riot as he gets foiled at every turn.  And the always delightful Harriet Harris positively growls and belittles as only she can - a heady mix of desperate housewife and self-entitled witch.  And, in one of Beane's more inspired plot twists, the stepsisters aren't so much wicked as they are real people struggling to be noticed and finding common ground with their stepsister, Ella.  The always fun Ann Harada threatens to steal every scene she's in.  Her "Stepsister's Lament" is laugh out loud funny.  Meanwhile, Marla Mindelle is sweet and charming as the stepsister with the hidden heart.  Please, someone write a new show for these two to co-star in!

Marla Mindelle and Greg Hildreth

Victoria Clark

The social conscience of the piece comes in the form of Lord Pinkleton, winningly played by Phumzile Sojola, whose broad smile brightens the whole place.  And there is the rabble-rousing Jean-Michel, played by rising star Greg Hildreth.  His role could easily be a chest thumping bore of a guy, but Hildreth wisely tempers his necessary bravado with moments of quiet strength and a warm, sincere sense of humor. One of the delightful surprises of the show is the star turn by Victoria Clark, who is wise and wonderful as the Fairy Godmother.  She's quirky, silly, sly and benevolent - the perfect maker of dreams come true.  That she receives a rousing ovation is no surprise and most definitely deserved.

Of course, the real draw here is, as it should be, Cinderella and her Prince Charming.  This production scores on both accounts.  Santino Fontana is perfection as the often befuddled, in over his head soon-to-be-king.  He is, at times, charmingly awkward, and, at others, bold, smart and strong.  His goofy, disarming smile and easy-on-the-ears singing voice make it easy to see why every lady in the land wants her shot at him.  But it is his ease and palpable chemistry with his princess-to-be that make this entire production soar.  Which brings me to the amazing performance of Laura Osnes, another sure Tony nominee to be.  If her turn as Bonnie wasn't proof enough, this role proves what a genuine triple threat she is.  Has she ever been in better voice?  I don't think so.  She is utterly charming, smart, witty, and displays some remarkable comic timing, which is no small task considering who she gets to share the stage with.  And this show allows her to display some serious dance skills - at one point during the ball scene, both she and Mr. Fontana got some spontaneous applause for a gorgeous series of lay back spins.  In short, she is a force to be reckoned with, and a beautiful Princess who makes you forget all about her fancy footwear.

Santino Fontana and Laura Osnes

Director Mark Brokaw has done an amazing job pulling together such diverse elements as a classic score, a new book, a modern sensibility that pays homage to musical stylings of years ago, and an amazing cast.  He has created a show that moves fast, with a smart urgency, that seamlessly brings together sweeping dance numbers with complex, full-cast scenes, and cleverly balances them with smaller, quieter moments.

I expected to enjoy the cast, and hoped to enjoy the classic score, and laugh at the new book.  What I didn't  expect was to so thoroughly fall under the spell of one of literature's most beloved heroines.  And now we can see that Broadway fits Cinderella like a glass slipper.

Photos by Carol Rosegg


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