CINDERELLA: Rogers & Hammerstein’s Musical Comedy
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage
Performances: November 29, 2019 – January 5, 2020
Ticket Prices: $36-63
Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org
Don’t expect a traditional Cinderella from this production with music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrica by Oscar Hammerstein, II, and book by Douglas Carter Beane. Originally written for television, Cinderella aired live on CBS in 1957 with Julie Andrews in the title role. Beane wrote a new book for the 2013 Broadway adaptation that includes some plot twists and introduces new characters – adding hilarity as well as a new political and social slant that makes the plot more interesting for adults without sacrificing the wide-eyed fascination and delight of younger audience members.
SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know the details of the adaptation, STOP! Skip to the final two paragraphs, then read the rest after seeing the show.
In this version, Cinderella’s father has died, leaving her at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. Susan Sanford plays the role of Madame, the selfish and self-centered stepmother. She is, being Susan Sanford, deliciously droll and completely over the top. Madame is so committed to being mean that she has a mini-meltdown when Cinderella says something kind to her at the prince’s ball while playing a game called Ridicule (imagine a mix of musical chairs and Words Against Humanity).
Audra Honaker plays Charlotte, the less favored sister – and Madame takes every opportunity to make sure she knows it. Honaker plays the role with a gravelly voice and a crude attitude (imagine a young Rosie O’Donnell, before she fell out of favor) pulling up her ballgown, removing one shoe, and sitting on the palace steps in the female version of manspreading. She goes for the physical humor and hits the mark nearly every time.
Havy Nguyen plays the favored and more conventionally attractive sister, Gabrielle. Gabrielle is more refined, not as loud, and kinder. Surprisingly, Gabrielle is sympathetic to Cinderella’s plight, and the two form a sisterly bond, sharing secrets and commiserating over their common oppression by Madame’s heavy-handed control.
Gabrielle isn’t really interested in the prince, because she is in love with Jean-Michel, a new character, played by Durron Marquis Tyre. Jean-Michel is a social activist, holding court in the marketplace and shouting outside the palace gates, trying to get the attention of Prince Topher (Edward L. Simon) to convince him to help the poor and disenfranchised citizen who are being evicted and losing their homes and land. Tyre’s character is a rabble-rouser in the marketplace, but shy and somewhat tongue-tied around Gabrielle. For their first date, he plans to take her to a soup kitchen to feed the poor.
Speaking of the poor. . .Prominent among the town’s characters is Marie, a beggar woman who is described as crazy but harmless. Of course, she turns out to be Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Katrinah Carol Lewis brings glamour and a larger-than-life presence to this role. With her magic wand and the help of some theatrical smoke, she transforms Cinderella from rags to riches, a pumpkin into a carriage, some mice into horses, and a fox and a racoon into a coachman and footman. The most amazing bit of magic, however, is the transformation of Marie’s beggar’s rags into a gown worthy of a fairy godmother, and Cinderella’s ragged dress into a ballgown – twice! A magic wand, some theatrical smoke, a few twirls under the special lighting effects, and the transformations happen in seconds right before our eyes. It’s the magician’s quick dress change trick, and it never fails to amaze me. (There were occasionally a few hints when a hem shifted, revealing an under layer – but this still didn’t spoil the fun, just as when, about five minutes into the show, Prince Topher apparently fell short in tossing his rope to topple a giant, and we caught a stage hand crawling out to retrieve the errant lasso.) Unless I missed it, I didn’t see any credit given for magic or special effects.
No, I didn’t forget the leading lady and her Prince Charming – or rather, Prince Topher. (The Town Crier’s recitation of the Prince’s ten or twelve formal names is another amusing running joke.) Quynh-My Luu and Edward L. Simon are both new to Virginia Rep. Luu makes a lovely Cinderella, with a strong voice and a likeable personality. She doesn’t overdo the kindness, maintaining a balance between humility and empowerment. Simon didn’t make as strong an impression as I thought a prince should. When we first meet him, he has just turned twenty-one and is in search of himself before taking the throne. Like Cinderella, both his parents have died, and he has been raised by Lord Chancellor Sebastian, who has also been running – and corrupting – the government while waiting for his young charge to come of age. Jay O. Millman is a somewhat stronger and more forceful presence than his prince, which seems unfortunate.
In this version, Cinderella doesn’t lose her shoe when rushing home from the ball, but deliberately leaves it on the palace steps a few days later, after attending a banquet the prince holds in order to lure her back to the palace. In both cases, Cinderella has a midnight curfew. She misses the first by a few minutes, leading to a humorous chase where the footman and coachman partially transform, revealing furry tails sticking out from their livery uniforms before they fully return to their furry four-footed selves.
Friday’s performance was before a full house, and there were many children of all ages present. From my vantage point in the last row of the orchestra, I was able to glance, from time to time, at some of the young people, who seemed to be thoroughly engaged. (The production starts at 7:00pm, rather than 8:00pm, and runs just under 90 minutes.) Some of the smaller ones sat on a parent’s lap or, if they had an aisle seat, hung over the armrest; VaRep might consider investing in a few booster seats for occasions like this.
During intermission, one friend mentioned that it took her some time to get used to an Asian Cinderella, as she was used to a Disney version with blonde hair and blue eyes. I didn’t hear anyone else say anything about the “color-blind” casting, with white, black, and Asian actors portraying fictitious characters, but then, I wasn’t focused on that aspect of the performance.
There are nearly 30 musical numbers in this two-act show. Among my favorites are “The Prince is Giving a Ball” in Act I and the quartet by Ella/Cinderella, Charlotte, Gabrielle, and Madame in Act II. I also enjoyed Matthew Couvillon’s choreography, with strong roots in both ballet and social dancing. Brian Barker’s scenic design is surprisingly constrained: a stand of thick trunked trees and a full moon for the outdoor scenes, the edge of a cottage for Cinderella’s house, a few wagons and far stands for the town square, and a wide, elegant balcony and stairway for the palace. BJ Wilkinson’s lighting doesn’t hold back on glitz and glitter, and Anthony Smith is the musical director of a small orchestra with a big sound. (Thankfully, the orchestra is in the pit and there are no holes for the dancers to tiptoe cautiously around.) Laine Satterfield’s direction kept things moving along at a rapid clip; there were no lulls for the younger audience members to get bored or distracted, or to allow the adults to notice the passage of time. I didn’t do any research prior to the show, so I didn’t know how funny it was going to be. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella is a delightful family show that unapologetically includes a message about treating all people well without becoming too preachy or pedantic.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Photos not available at the time this review was written.