It may surprise you to hear me say this, but let me tell you why the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, is actually pretty good: It’s an updated take on the classic fairy tale, with something worth latching on to for all the little girls and boys who might see it, and it has a beautiful, full score.
Beane’s new book infuses issues of social justice and though some will argue that that isn’t necessary, I like that it keeps this from being treacly, and that it actually gives you something to care about. Plus, it makes the characters, especially Topher (Prince Charming) and Ella (Cinderella), full characters, not just archetypes.
The basics are still the same: Ella, the girl of the cinders, lives at home with and is servant to her nasty step-mother and two step-sisters (one is dim but harmless and the other sympathetic toward Cinderella). With the help of a fairy godmother, Cinderella appears at a royal ball and enchants the prince. She leaves before he can learn her true identity and the prince then spends the rest of his time trying to find her before living happily ever after.
But here, Ella (Laura Osnes) is spunkier and more emboldened than in the Disney animated film. She’s kind and gentle, but she also listens to the social activists among her, notably Jean-Michel (Peter and the Starcatcher’s Greg Hildreth). So when she has an audience with the prince, she tells him he needs to treat his people better, that the class inequality is unfair and needs to change.
I like this because this is a show that will be attended by lots and lots and lots of little girls. (There were at least seven school buses of kids at the performance I attended.) For some, it might be their first Broadway show. I’m heartened by the fact that these girls will see this Ella and know that there’s a different kind of princess they can aspire to be. They’ll know that they can accomplish great things and they don’t have to be just a pretty, pretty princess.
Prince Charming listens to Ella, too, because he’s actually a three-dimensional character. Topher (Santino Fontana) is an orphan and learning how to be a prince—how to be a ruler of a kingdom. (One great line from Beane’s new book: upon discovering that the man she was talking to is the prince, Ella exclaims, “Him? A world leader? But he has a heart and soul and wisdom!”) In doing so, he’s trying to figure out who he is and what his contribution to society will be. This, too, is a great lesson for the boys in the audience, and there were more than expected when I saw the show.
Directed by Mark Brokaw (and with pretty and effective choreography by Josh Rhodes), everyone does fine work. Harriet Harris (as the step-mother) and Peter Bartlett (as the prince’s scheming consigliere) seem to relish the verbal harpoons they hurl at their unsuspecting victims. Hildreth and original Avenue Q cast member Ann Harada (as the dim, overlooked step-sister) provide comic relief.
Fontana (The Importance of Being Earnest) is good as Topher, the floundering world leader. He has a nice voice (which is shown off better in act two), and brings a sensitive vulnerability to the role. The storybook Prince Charming this isn’t, so it’s fitting that Fontana lays off the charisma and instead goes for thoughtful and caring.
As the fairy godmother, the alway impressive Victoria Clark (Sister Act) is radiant. She shines as she helps make Ella’s dreams come true, and her beautiful voice and spirit make you believe that nothing is “Impossible.” (She looks dazzling in William Ivey Long’s glorious costumes.)
I wasn’t anticipating liking Laura Osnes as Cinderella. First of all, I usually don’t like the ingenue or princess roles because I find them one-dimensional and unrelatable. And the last time I saw Osnes playing a role of this type (or the type I thought Ella was going to be), I didn’t care for her at all. (That would be when she was Hope Harcourt in Anything Goes.) While Osnes (Bonnie and Clyde) does look like the perfect princess—she’s impossibly pretty and has a very sweet voice—she brings layers and depth to Beane’s version of the princess, making her a full character I could root for.
Of course the real star of the musical is the score. The gorgeous Rodgers and Hammerstein score, with its lovely melodies and sometimes silly and whimsical lyrics, is full and lush, and played by a full orchestra, which is seen too infrequently these days. This score, not at all new, is the best score on Broadway this season. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.