I’ve long been a proponent of the concept “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and in a lot of ways, I apply that to the media and entertainment I consume.
I was thoroughly displeased when I first heard word of a remake of one of my favorite ‘90s television shows, “Charmed,” and you can’t imagine my disappointment when I enthusiastically went to see the Broadway take on Disney’s “Newsies,” only to realize that lyrics to the songs I’d long sung and loved were vastly different for no reason that I could understand. It wasn’t a pleasant surprise.
Heading to the Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy over the weekend, though, to catch the Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” I discovered a pleasant fix I wasn’t anticipating and didn’t even realize I needed to see.
As a quick lesson in history, the story of “Cinderella” has been told and retold countless times, from Disney’s cartoon take and more recent live-action version to the Charles Perrault version told in French in 1697 and the Brothers Grimm version that made things a little more graphic than maybe totally necessary.
One of the most beloved takes on the tale, though, came in the 1950s when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein teamed with CBS to create the first televised incarnation of “Cinderella” starring none other than the timeless Julie Andrews, well-known at the time for her Broadway stint as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”
The broadcasted production was astonishingly well-received with over 107 million viewers, and Andrews was even nominated for an Emmy for her work in the show.
I especially loved the 1965 TV movie starring Lesley Ann Warren and grew up with favorite tunes such as “In My Own Little Corner,” “Impossible,” “Ten Minutes Ago” and “A Lovely Night.”
It was a dream of a fairy tale setup despite the fact that some part of me knew that the story was lacking in everything but the magic of it.
According to HCT “Cinderella” director Dave Tinney in his Director’s Notes on the show, “The story based on the classic fairy tale, was really no more than a 10-minute sketch stretched into a three-act musical. They talk about the ball. They go to the ball. They return from the ball. Shoe fits … happily ever after. That was an acceptable plotline when Disney princesses simply waited wistfully to be rescued by a handsome stranger. … The classic premise of ‘girl endures abuse, dreams and waits to be rescued.’ ”
It wasn’t until 56 years later, in 2013, that “Cinderella” was truly overhauled by Douglas Carter Beane for a Broadway revival.
“Cinderella opens Prince Topher’s eyes to the injustice in the kingdom,” Tinney explained of the changes. “The prince’s parents have died, leaving the kingdom in the hands of a villainous minister who has been the prince’s mentor and has duped his young charge into approving oppressive legislation. The rebel Jean-Michel, a new character, and stepsister Gabrielle are in love and seek to overthrow the government. The score includes the best-known songs from the original version and four more songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog. Cinderella is no longer a passive observer in her own story, but is now a strong, intelligent, pro-active princess. A perfect fit for a millennial audience.”
When I first realized there were new songs included in the show, a red flag went up as I worried about the classical magic the tale of “Cinderella” invokes. Yet somehow, pulling four new songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein library, songs written for and unused in other shows, still amplified the magic, while giving “Cinderella” a bit more of a backbone, and gratefully a few more actual people in her corner, rather than just some wild animals (which don’t get me wrong, I love her relationship with wild animals, and the puppetry and transformation of them in this Hale production is FANTASTIC).
Jean-Michel is a great ally with great purpose – helping others to realize how the kingdom has declined since Prince Topher’s parents passed on; and I loved seeing the changes in Gabrielle that felt very reminiscent of plot from the Cinderella story of “Ever After.” Some careful tweaking changed up the plot just enough to leave Gabrielle absent from the cruelest scenes, while another of Ella’s friends, Crazy Marie, gave a little more substance to the concept of a Fairy Godmother making dreams and wishes come true.
The story changes just provided a foundation, though, for “a lovely night,” with the cast at our showing, including Shae Robins as Ella, Michelle Blake as Marie, Preston Taylor as Topher, Kelton Davis as Jean-Michel, Elisabeth Summerhays as Madame, Rachel Bigler as Gabrielle and Kristi Curtis as Charlotte really leading out a strong cast for a magical evening packed with character, romance, drama and just enough silliness to carry it through.
I loved the imposing nature of Summerhays’ Madame, who towers not only over Ella but her actual daughters as well, and the caricature of classic step-sister provided by Curtis that made the song “Ridicule” all the more hilarious. Bigler’s personality in the show also added dimension as she created a more realistic interpretation of a step-sister for Ella while offering some great laughs as she elects to woo Jean-Michel.
Robins gave a flawless performance as Ella, bringing a spirit and level-headedness to a princess often known for only her desire to go to a ball and marry a prince, while Blake’s take on Marie and Fairy Godmother were sheer magic.
Adding in other roles and supporting cast created an entire bustling village that it was impossible not to get caught up in, though it’s not just the cast that created such a fun night for those in attendance. A huge amount of credit for the show goes to the production team, and especially set designer Kacey Udy and costume designer Mary Ann Hill with Amanda Dobbs. Scenes changed effortlessly from the audience perspective, while impressive costume transformations took place in the round so that despite the fact that every pair of eyes in the house had a great view, it could surely have only been magic that transformed Ella’s attire not once, but twice.
Light design by Brian Healy and Michael Gray added sparkle to the magic, while hair and make-up design by Krissa Lent took the costume design to the next level.
Though some people may look at changes to the script as a vying for political correctness or an unnecessary interjection into a classic story, having seen all the parts moving together on the Hale Centre Theatre stage thoroughly converted me to the updates, which not only included a few laughs and an ample extra helping of magic, but also a little more depth of character which came in the best possible way.