Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" Broadway Tour at the Orpheum

This is not your grandmother's Cinderella. Gone is the pretty and powerless young girl whose only goal is to marry the prince. In the updated version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (the only musical they wrote for TV, debuting in 1957 starring Julie Andrews), the would be princess is a smart, thoughtful, confident, and kind young woman who is concerned about social justice, and perhaps most shockingly, good friends with her stepsister. OK so she also wants to marry a prince, but at least there's a little more to this story. If we're going to dress up our daughters as princesses, let's at least instill in them a belief and a confidence that they can do more with their crown than just look pretty and be a bride. In 2015, the world has much more to offer girls and women than that, and it's nice to see this big beautiful Broadway musical at least hint at that. And it is big and beautiful in the grand Broadway style, with Rodgers and Hammerstein's gorgeous music played by a full orchestra in the pit, luscious costumes including some theater magic to create Cinderella's dress transformation, glorious dancing, and a perfect cast.

In the new book by Douglas Carter Beane, Prince Topher is going through an existential crisis, returned from school to rule the kingdom after his parents' death (why are the parents always dead?), but unsure and unsatisfied with his life (see also Pippin). In comes the poor and pretty Ella, who winds up at the ball thanks to her fairy godmother, and before the clock strikes midnight tells Topher about the troubles of his people and that he should do something to help him. In another change to the traditional story, one of the stepsisters is nice, and she and Ella are friends and confidantes - a lovely addition to show that friendship is also a love worth having. She's in love with the cute revolutionary Jean-Michel, and Ella arranges for him to meet the Prince and discuss the issues of the people. Topher not only listens to them just like a regular guy, he also apparently invents democracy, calling for an election for a Prime Minister to advise him on such matters. In the end, it's still about the slipper (done in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way), the love story, the wedding, and the fairy tale, but in this case, the princess saves the prince as much as the prince saves the princess.

the positively dreamy dance at the ball
(photo by Carol Rosegg)
The language used by the characters is definitely more 21st Century than Renaissance era, or even mid-20th Century, which lends a freshness to the story (they even use + instead of & in the title to show how hip and modern the show is). In addition to the sisterly friendship, another lovely addition is the idea of kindness instead of ridicule, which is refreshing in the day of anonymous internet bullying. What if we did all practice kindness, something that seems to come so easily to Ella but can be practiced by everyone if we just put a little effort into it? Even the villains receive forgiveness in the end rather than revenge.

Cinderella and her family in a happy moment of togetherness
(photo by Carol Rosegg)
In last night's #intermissiontweets (follow Cherry and Spoon on Twitter) I wrote "I wanna put on a ball gown and be swept across the dance floor by a handsome prince." True story. The dancing at the ball at the end of Act I is positively dreamy! Impossibly full skirts make it seem like the women's feet never touch the ground as the men twirl and lift them around the stage. This is only one example of Josh Rhodes enthralling choreography. The cast is pretty dreamy too - Paige Faure is an appealing heroine, Andy Huntington Jones makes a swoonworthy Prince, and both have effortlessly lovely voices. Standouts in the fantastic ensemble are Will Blum as the adorkable Jean-Michel, Liz  McCartney as the Fairy Godmother, and Beth Glover, Kaitlyn Davidson, and Aymee Garcia as the evil steps which maybe aren't so evil after all.

And then there's the dress. There are several "how did they do that?" moments of dress transformation which seem truly magical. I knew they were coming and tried to watch closely, but I still couldn't figure out how they do it. I suspect the answer is clever costume design (by William Ivey Long), the most important magic trick - distraction, and practice, practice, practice!

Maybe Cinderella represents something more than just a pretty princess bride, maybe she can be a role model for "every girl who wants to change the world she's living in," as her Fairy Godmother tells her. Either way, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella is a sweet, funny, charming take on a classic (continuing through this weekend only at Hennepin Theatre Trust's Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis).