Why, of all shows, would I want to see Cinderella twice? In all honesty, I've never been a huge fan of the various versions of the R&H Cinderella. To me, they all seemed rather thin (e.g. the Julie Andrews and Leslie Ann Warren versions) or bloated (the Brandy/Whitney Houston version), but never particularly enchanting. The original songs, of course, are lovely, but the TV treatments have usually left me feeling I would have been better off listening to the soundtracks.
I was in New York one weekend and was having dinner with my friend Geoff and he was telling me about the Broadway Cinderella, which he had seen at one of the very first previews. He made it sound like the show needed a lot of work, and I became intrigued. Not just rubbernecking intrigued, but that was certainly part of it. I knew I would eventually be invited to see the show as a member of the Outer Critics Circle, but I had a rare night when I was in New York and didn't already have a show to see, so I sidled over to the Cinderella box office.
It turned out that the show was indeed in need of a good deal of work, particularly in pruning a rather bloated and busy second act, with disparate story elements struggling to come together. As you may know, the Broadway production sports a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, a man who's certainly proved himself as a playwright (The Little Dog Laughed, As Bees in Honey Drown), although his track record with musicals so far has been spotty (Xanadu = yay, Lysistrata Jones = boo).
I have heard many complaints about the liberties that Beane has taken with the story (making one of the stepsisters sympathetic, adding a subplot about a political upstart who wants to confront the Prince about the plight of the poor, eliminating the king and queen from the story, etc.). The changes didn't bother me. I mean, it's not as though the Cinderella story hasn't already changed considerably over time. The question is, does Beane do it well?
Well, sometimes. Beane manages to add some much-needed humor to the piece, although it sometimes crosses over into anachronistic snark. And, as I said, the show I saw in previews needed some paring down. The first time I saw it, the second act contained a significant subplot about an election for prime minister. Beane tried to weave this in with the whole trying-on-the-shoe thing, and the result was forced and confusing. The second act has since been cut to the point where the election is only really mentioned, not depicted.
The cuts were necessary, but the threads are showing. If you blink, you'll miss who actually wins the election. And the more expedient second act has apparently necessitated some lightning-fast costumes changes, as evidenced by the addition of some cheesy overlay costumes - Velcro numbers that barely conceal the costumes from the previous scene beneath - which many of the chorus members now wear during the finale.
What remains of the book is mostly workable, although there is some genuinely contrived business regarding a book that comes into Cinderella's possession during act one. In act two, the Fairy Godmother makes a big deal out of making sure Cinderella takes the book with her on her second trip to the palace. (Oh, yes, a book. That's exactly what an incipient princess needs to bring with her to a royal banquet. A book.) Upon Cinderella's arrival at the palace, there's some more forced business about the Prince suddenly remembering a chapter from the book that might just save the day. "Of course!" he cries. "Chapter two!" We never find out what's actually in chapter two, nor what the entire book is about for that matter, but I guess chapter two must have an election of some sort, because that's how the Prince suddenly gets the idea to hold the election.
To Beane's credit, he playfully points out some of the more ridiculous aspects of the original Cinderella story. At one point, Gabrielle asks Cinderella, "How did you ever dance in glass shoes?" I would love to have seen Beane more directly address the whole notion of the Prince insisting on trying the glass slipper on the foot of every young woman in the kingdom. I mean, why is it that the Prince isn't paying attention to something a bit more distinctive about these women, like, I don't know, their faces? Has he developed a sudden but temporary case of prosopagnosia?
The glorious Cinderella score has been supplemented here by some somewhat perfunctory R&H trunk songs. The first time I saw the show, there were six added numbers, including “I Have Loved and I've Learned” (a cut number from The Sound of Music, sung here by the stepmother and stepsisters) as well as “I Haven't Got a Worry in the World,” (a song R&H written for the short-lived play Happy Birthday, and sung here by the newly sympathetic stepsister, Gabrielle, and her activist beau Jean-Michel). These two numbers have since been cut from Cinderella, and rightly so.
Four additional trunk numbers have survived the preview cutting process. The Prince's first song is “Me, Who Am I?,” a number cut from Me and Juliet. The new Jean-Michel character sings the rabble-rousing “Now Is the Time,” a song cut from South Pacific. The Prince and Cinderella sing the plaintive “Loneliness of Evening,” also cut from South Pacific. And the Fairy Godmother sings “There's Music in You,” an R&H song from the movie "Main Street to Broadway." All these songs have a certain utility here, but none of them could be considered a newly discovered gem.
The post-preview version of Cinderella, at least for my money, comes closest to working of any of the various versions to the R&H Cinderella, although even this version is a bit diffuse. Production highlights include a sumptuous visual style, with sets by Anna Louizos and costumes by William Ivey Long. Long provides some especially clever pieces for the various transformations. Chief among the production's assets is the near-perfect casting, led by the always appealing Laura Osnes as Ella herself, an offbeat yet charming Santino Fontana as the Prince, and Tony winner Victoria Clark as an alternately dotty and delightful Fairy Godmother. (Oh, and a special shout-out to chorus member Kendal Hartse, one of my very first students at the Boston Conservatory. BoCo, represent!)
I get the sense that this Cinderella is going to be around for a while. At the first performance I attended, the Playbill was black-and-white. By the second performance, the Playbill had gone to full-color. That's usually a sign that a show has some cash in the coffers.