If there’s one lesson Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to pound into Cinderella’s head, it’s that nothing is impossible. It’s a lesson that may have rubbed off a bit too much on playwright Douglas Carter Beane as he adapted the pair’s 1957 musical for its newly revised version.
Certainly Beane’s project has been ambitious. Starting with the Rodgers and Hammerstein book, he edited the text heavily to make it truer to the Charles Perrault version of the story—the same that inspired Walt Disney’s 1950 film. Beane then added contemporary references and speech. The Perrault version, Beane said, was “so simple, and so pure—but so smart.”
Unfortunately it’s also needlessly redundant. The tediousness of sitting through two balls, two interventions by the Fairy Godmother, and two stroke-of-midnight escapes as the magic wears off makes one long for the tighter, budget-minded editing by Disney. The convolutedness might be forgivable if Beane added plot complexities that Disney, looking for an easily digestible, straightforward love story, ignored. To be fair, he certainly tries: one of the stepsisters falls for a man devoted to bringing about democratic reforms in the kingdom. It’s an interesting addition but one whose anachronistic quality feels more awkward and forced than purposeful.
Meanwhile, the dialogue stays disappointingly on the too-simple side, even when occasionally, haltingly, trying to break free. Beane has balanced his choice of using an older version of the story by mixing in modern and informal language but has done so inconsistently. A round of “gonnas” follows a handful of “shalls,” which makes the juxtaposition more jarring and less seamless that it should be. Overall though, the actual interactions between characters—and especially their depth and development—stay on too low a level of complexity.
Because of this, the audience appeal skews younger, and kids may enjoy this more than adults. That may sound obvious, but it shouldn’t be a given: plenty of shows meant for children maintain enough appeal for adults to make it as enjoyable for the parents. Think Shrek, or The Lion King.
Cinderella tried but stopped short of the sophistication needed to make this more than just a show for the kids. The result is a play that is simple where it should be complex and complex where it should be simple. It also suffers from a rushed quality, especially toward the end, that doesn’t come from the choice of Perrault: despite the buildup, we never really learn what the prince’s mentor, Sebastian, is up to; and the wicked stepmother’s change of heart is too swift when asking Cinderella for forgiveness.
Other elements of the show are handled so well, making the writing missteps all the more disappointing. The highlight of the show might be William Ivey Long’s ingenious costume transitions. Twice he turns rags into beautiful ball gowns, fully on stage, hiding fabric inside seams that unfolds with the pull of some unseen latch. It looks exactly like the magic it tries to be, and both occasions draw much-deserved applause.
Perfect in her role of stepmother Madame is Harriet Harris. (As a Desperate Housewives fan, I have to a admit a bit of bias toward the actress who played Felicia Tilman, a conniving neighbor who may as well have been Madame’s reincarnation.) Peter Bartlett, opposite her as the equally crafty Sebastian, is a similarly great casting choice, and plays his role masterfully.
Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana turn the flat and simplistic characters they were given into something better—unfortunately for them those characters are the leads, Cinderella and Prince Topher respectively.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s a fun show, and one with plenty of energy. But it could have traded a lot of what was in it for a lot that should have been. It’s too bad, because the idea of a Cinderella that is a viable mix of many different versions, with new story elements that don’t make the whole story any less recognizable—and with contemporary speech mixed in for fun—sounds like a great show. And it shouldn’t be impossible to pull off.