a theatre, film & pop culture review
Cinderella’s never been our most feminist of fairy tale heroines, but in the current Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, playing at the Broadway Theatre, the sugar-sweet damsel in distress isn’t so, well, distressed. In its first Broadway staging — R&H’s classic, starring Julie Andrews, was televised in 1957; and then again in 1965 with Celeste Holme as Fairy Godmother and Ginger Rogers as the Queen; and then again in 1997 with pop star Brandy and Fairy Godmother Whitney Houston — our girl Cindy (or Ella, as this production prefers) has no shame in knowing and getting what she wants. Leaving that glass slipper on the staircase isn’t accidental — it’s intentional.
If only all moments in this newly ‘modernized’ Cinderella were as delightfully, and humorously, forward-thinking. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane (whose The Nance is also currently playing The Broadway) has amped up Oscar Hammerstein II’s book with his signature hammy style to decidedly mixed results. The bookwriter of Xanadu (hilarious, if mostly because of its over-the-top leads, Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson), Lysistrata Jones and Sister Act hasn’t quite perfected the art of keeping the funny integral to a musical’s story. He’s like a standup that just wants to get in one more, not particularly relevant, punchline — and then one more on top of that — and the result is a lot of (mostly cheap) laughs, but also a musical that’s tone is as rocky as as a pumpkin-coach ride at midnight.
Snark isn’t part of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s vocabulary, of course, so the musical duo’s sincere and gorgeously retro score (the unabashedly romantic “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” still brings tears to the eyes), and even the shoe-horned-in songs from R&H’s musical trunk, are at odds with Bean’s contemporary gags. When Ella sings “In My Own Little Corner,” we’re swept up in her whimsical longing, but when the last note sounds, we’re jarringly assaulted with joke after joke. Beane’s a funny guy, but he’s trying too hard, which results in a lot of forced jokes and redundant plotting. We have two balls, when we need just one, and there’s an entirely superfluous politically progressive subplot (something generic about government stealing from the poor, etc. etc.) that’s unrelenting: the insufferable revolutionary Jean-Michel (a dull Greg Hildreth) just keeps popping up, unwelcome. It’s not that injecting politics into R&H is unheard of, it’s that it simply doesn’t work in this incarnation.
Despite Beane’s best efforts otherwise, Cinderella manages to be a largely delightful experience. Anna Louizo’s storybook set with its enchanting forest and William Ivey Long’s lush, technicolor array of costumes rigged for magically quick transformations are physical standouts. Though the efforts of the supporting cast are a mixed bag — Harriet Harris as the Stepmother plays the Beane silliness to the hilt, while Victoria Clark’s Fairy Godmother is all exquisite vocals R&H genuineness — that’s largely due to Mark Brokaw’s inconsistent direction. Somehow, though, Broadway’s Cutest Couple (thus anointed by various critics), Laura Osnes and Santino Fontanta manage to overcome the book’s blunders with the score’s blessings.
As Ella, Osnes is pure R&H with her sparkling soprano and endearing sweetness, but she also manages to edge the traditional role with some spunky assertiveness that empowers, rather than works against, the story’s inherent sincerity and romanticism. Fontana’s Prince Topher best strikes the balance between the jokey book and earnest score: an effortlessly funny actor who can float Oscar Wilde witticisms before sharply landing the social satire (and who I — still — cannot stop laughing at here), Fontana gently shapes a prince who is both goofily clueless and sincerely well-intentioned. His comic timing is impeccable, downplaying the jokiness while emphasizing the character, and his beautiful baritone delivery of R&H sincerity is absolutely lovely.
Perhaps the best indicator of how this Cinderella works is the rapt attention of hundreds of children at the Broadway Theatre each night. It’s near impossible not to be swept away by a rags-to-riches fairy tale when it’s so handsomely dressed, beautifully sung and inspires such child-like awe. Cinderella may not be perfect, but its intended audience believes otherwise, and just this once, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt us to share that perspective and have a ball — or two.