Most of us have grown up with the imbedded image of a young and brilliant Leslie Ann Warren as Cinderella in the Hallmark Hall of Fame which was always trotted out at Christmas. Some of you will even remember the original live production of the first incarnation with Julie Andrews. Both of these are, and will remain classics for future generations. But the current, revised Cinderella will be right alongside of them both. As both of the other Cinderella's were reflections of the times in which they were presented this new version is as well, taking a slap at our current do-nothing, corrupt and out of touch government and filthy banking industry who repossessed so many people's homes. But at heart this is a story about finding home within ourselves, realizing and exercising our power and standing up to the greed and corruption currently is destroying our middle class (Disney's outstanding Newsies at the Oriental tackles the same theme).
With cooperation from the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate emerges a modern book, bringing the fairy tale into the twenty-first century and providing some new songs while keeping the well-known ones from the original. And they do it splendidly.
One of the major issues I have always had with this show has been the thin, 2-dimensional book and characterizations combined with an unrealistic theme that the pretty girl will always get the handsome Prince. Therefore little girls grow up with a highly romanticized view of love which will turn them bitter when they realize life does not turn out like the fairy tale. While the first act remains close to the original the second has been rewritten in a way that provides the meat and message of the show.
Douglas Carter Beane's new book is clever, campy and timely and gives us a modern, realistic Cinderella and powerful theme of not waiting around for life to happen but shaping your own destiny through courage, kindness and believing (he has some hysterically funny one-liners as well which entertain the adults in the audience). Beane has overcome many of the problems with the original book but also infused a depth and purpose in it which was sorely lacking and blew off the dust from the cardboard story of previous incarnations.
Some great additions have also been added to the original gorgeous Rodgers and Hammerstein score with new songs and arrangements by David Chase. He has penned the anthem for this new Cinderella which is sung by her Fairy Godmother, Mad Marie (a brilliant performance by Kecia Lewis who is the heart and soul of the show) "There's Music in You". It is tricky to blend the old music with the new but in most instances Chase's additions blend well.
As Ella (Cinderella) at the opening night we had the joy to see both the original (Paige Faure) and her understudy (Audrey Cardwell) perform in the same evening. Faure played in act one and Cardwell stepped in for act two. Both are SUPERB. In fact the casting of Cardwell as Faure's understudy is so brilliant that you barely notice the change. Although there is a slight physical difference they both have the same vocal quality and illuminating personalities and provide a worthy heroine for young girls in the audience. Their Cinderella, infused with a delightful naivety, great sense of humor and a core kindness, comes into own her power through believing in herself and realizing that we shape our lives and forge our own destinies. In this Cinderella the magic comes from within and it is through the kindness, forgiveness and beauty of our own souls that we can change our world and those around us.
Prince Topher, played by Andy Jones, is likewise not your typical Prince Charming. He is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier but an awkward, nerdy kind of guy who also possesses the same honest heart as Cinderella and, through her teaching, comes into his own power, learning what it means to be a leader of people (our leaders should watch and take heed) and that he is there to serve. In fact he establishes the first democratic elections in his country and addresses the needs of his people.
The wicked Stepmother, called Madame (played with delicious relish and razor-sharp comic timing by Beth Clover) and her "real daughters" as she call them, Charlotte (in a hilarious comic, never over the top turn that comes by Aymee Garcia) and Gabrielle (played with heart and sincerity by Ashley Park) are also given much more dimension than in previous versions as well as some of the funniest dialogue. Madame, in the middle of a tirade toward Cinderella, suddenly asks "Why do I not have any friends?" and Charlotte (the fat step-sister) reminds the Prince that "This is still a possibility" as she points to her large figure. When Cinderella is given a book of the world she states with joy "It is so nice to actually own something!"
And then there are the magic effects which only Disney can give us. When the Fairy Godmother changes Cinderella's rags to the iconic beautiful white gown it is breath-taking in how they pull it off (not only the gown changes but her hair as well with a diamond tiara magically appearing out of nowhere). And when she changes back into the rags it is even cleverer (I won't give this away). The Fairy Godmother flies and animals are transformed in front of our eyes into coachmen.
Everything about this production has a Broadway patina, from the splendidly simple but beautiful magical set designed by Anna Louizos, the gorgeous costumes by Tony-Award Winning designer William Ivey Long and outstanding wig design by Paul Huntley. It is everything that a fairy tale should be; lush, vivid and magical.
For me this Cinderella was my Christmas present, all wrapped up in a beautiful bow, containing a real gem that I will cherish for years to come. Its magical message and contemporary book will resonate and move you as well. Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella plays for a limited engagement at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through January 4 th . Visit BroadwayinChicago.com for tickets and more information.
REVIEWED BY: JAMES MURRAY