BROADWAY REVIEW: "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella" plays at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway. Call 212-239-6262 or visit cinderellaonbroadway.com
NEW YORK - The provenance of "Cinderella" is long ago and far away — she's been around at least since the 17th century in written form, and some date her all the way to classical antiquity.
So one need not be a stickler with particular plot points. But an audience plunking down money for the first-ever Broadway production of "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella," first seen on American television in 1957 with Julie Andrews in the title role (played here by Laura Osnes), has certain, reasonable expectations born of the last century: ugly stepsisters, a mean stepmother, a glass slipper and, most crucially of all, the aspirational notion that an ordinary girl, a mistreated kitchen maid, can be suddenly transformed into the kind of glamorous woman who can sweep a monarch off his feet. She enjoys a moment not unlike a lottery winner or, for that matter, the former Kate Middleton (OK, scratch the maid part). And, as Rodgers and Hammerstein well knew, we never weary of watching dreams fulfilled. Especially when we're young.
The fundamental problem with Douglas Carter Beane's perplexing, wholly unromantic and mostly laugh-free new book for this Broadway "Cinderella" — which turns the heroine into a social reformer like a better-looking Jane Addams, the stepsisters (Marla Mindelle and Ann Harada) into sympathetic, wounded creatures of thwarted desire, and Prince Charming (Santino Fontana) into a myopic dunce who needs his eyes opened to the poverty of his people — is that it denies the audience the pleasure of instant reversals of fortune. Sure, these matters are tricky. We no longer define great fortune by whom one manages to marry, and rightly so. But if nobody wanted to see "Cinderella" as it's generally and vaguely understood, nobody would have been in the house at the opening Sunday night, and this show would not have been grossing more than $1 million a week during previews.
There is nothing wrong with updating or even politicizing the story — although when you are updating the book to this extent, it would help to have brought along living composers of a similar reformist bent, rather than a lush, romantic, harmonic and, yes, politically traditional song suite penned about a half-century ago — the problem here is how it is done. This new version ends up collapsing the basic logic of the familiar story and tramples all over the musical soul of a score from another era, a retro collection of songs less fevered than the R&H masterworks and inextricably linked to an American moment soon to be swept away in social revolution.
This confused show now includes a nefarious adviser, Sebastian (Peter Bartlett), who really is running the country, a superfluous revolutionary named John-Michel (Greg Hildreth), who functions as a love interest for one of those not-so-ugly stepsisters, a fairy godmother (Victoria Clark), who doubles as a beggar woman offering rewards for Cinderella's kindness, and a plot that involves a prince becoming so enlightened as to suggest democracy rather than a hereditary monarchy. Now there's an idea every sporty royal loves.
Perhaps one could embrace all of this revisionism if it all were lighter and more charming than is the case here. But at one point deep in Act 2 of director Mark Brokaw's strange production, you cannot help but reach the inescapable conclusion that Osnes' "Cinderella," as conceived here, just wouldn't have any interest in elitist dresses, balls with princes or glass slippers — which, in this case, were designed by Stuart Weitzman, aka Prince of the Pump. So what is it, folks? Designer product placement or Up With the Revolution?
Not for the first time, Broadway wants it all ways — the hip and the retro, romance and self-aware sniping, Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies and atonal satirical jabs, a golden title for family audiences and yet something else entirely once their credit cards have been charged. It would work better, perhaps, if there were a lighter touch to Brokaw's production, which is long and dense and fails to showcase the music (the score is enhanced by a couple of additional Rodgers and Hammerstein songs cut from other shows).
Costume designer William Ivey Long crafted some fun changes, but the show's visual appeal, stuck in that fatal dead spot between romance and satire, is handicapped by a set from Anna Louizos that puts one in mind of the lair of the Knights Who Say Ni in "Spamalot." There is no sense whatsoever of a nice, dreamy palace in which Cinders could be happy. In fact, her current life with her manageable stepsisters, reformable stepmom (Harriet Harris, who has her moments), a few friendly little furry creatures and a magical beggar woman with whom to pass the time seems a whole lot better than anything on offer with a prince who, once transformed as is the case here, would not be choosing a mate at a dance or concerning himself with a shapely ankle in a designer shoe.
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