Review: A Feminist Response to Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella on Broadway

Carey Purcell

www.CareyPurcell.com

The opening line of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella sets the tone for the majority of the play. When Cinderella, wandering through the misty woods, wistfully sings, “It makes you wish that the world could be as lovely as it looks,” I couldn’t help but agree. Why can’t life be as pretty as it looks onstage at the Broadway Theater?

Directed by Mark Brokaw, and with a new book written by Douglas Carter Beane, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is appearing on the Broadway stage for the first time. It was first seen as a made-for-television movie in 1957 starring Julie Andrews, and then again with Lesley Ann Warren in 1965 and Brandy in 1997. All of those adaptations have adhered strictly to the fairy-tale story of the beautiful and good girl who falls in love at first sight with the handsome prince who tracks her down using the missing shoe she loses on the steps of the palace. This adaptation, I am happy to say, contains the charm and romance of the original story, but also features a more progressive message of social justice and equality as well as female sisterhood and self-empowerment. This is a Cinderella I would like to be friends with.

Starring Laura Osnes as the titular character, Cinderella introduces the audience to Ella and Prince Topher (short for Christopher Rupert…if you’ve heard the song “The Prince Is Giving a Ball,” you know the rest) as two lost souls who have not yet found each other. Forced to live with her cruel stepmother Madame (Harriet Harris, hamming it up whenever she gets the chance) and two sisters Gabrielle (Marla Mindelle) and Charlotte (Ann Harada), Cinderella is lonely and sees no way out of her mundane, unsatisfactory existence. But never fear – she is still kind and good, even to the local madwoman Crazy Marie (Victoria Clark), a move that proves to be beneficial to her later in the show. Prince Topher (Santino Fontana) is also an orphan, having lost his parents at a young age and raised by the suspiciously unscrupulous Sebastian (a delightfully villainous Peter Bartlett), a corrupt politician who has been tricking the prince into signing documents that take the land of peasants away from them. Having graduated from the University, Prince Topher is unsure of his identity, as well as his future, but he is vaguely aware of the political unease in his town, mostly thanks to the revolutionary Jean Michel (Greg Hildreth). In order to distract the town from their circumstances, Sebastian orders a royal ball in order to find the prince a bride. After all, he says, nothing distracts people like a royal wedding. (Wink, wink.)

Despite Madame’s best and most malicious efforts, Cinderella does make it to the ball thanks to the help of her fairy godmother (Surprise! It’s Crazy Marie.) and some impressive special effects. But before swooning in the Prince’s arms, she informs him that his people are suffering and he has to change his royal ways. But never fear; a romantic waltz to “Ten Minutes Ago” also takes place. Josh Rhodes’ choreography is especially impressive here; at times during the song Osnes seems to actually walk on air. The romance between the two is believable, as are the impassioned pleas Cinderella makes for Prince Topher to evaluate the Castle’s actions.

As Topher pursues Cinderella, determined to find her again, a few of the changes Beane made to the story become quite apparent. For one, there is a stronger theme of sisterhood, because Gabrielle (who actually is in love with Jean Michel, despite her mother’s objections) realizes it was Cinderella at the ball – and agrees to keep it a secret, as long as Cinderella keeps Gabrielle’s feelings for Jean Michel quiet as well. Watching the two young women laugh and plot together was quite endearing. And the song “A Lovely Night,” which traditionally Cinderella sings alone, was revised to be performed with her two stepsisters and Madame, as she “pretended” what she thought the ball was like. The four women clearly are having a great time during this song, and it is sweet to see Cinderella feel like a part of her family. One only wishes they could bond over something other than a man.

Another change in the story, which I found to be greatly beneficial, was the theme of self-empowerment that permeates Cinderella. Rather than losing her glass slipper on the steps, Cinderella deliberately chooses to leave it there. And instead of the Prince showing up at her door and demanding that she try it on, Cinderella appears at the Palace in her torn and tattered clothes and asks to try on the shoe. Her decision to be with the Prince is just that – her decision.

While the added themes of equality and populism, as well as self-empowerment, are welcome in this new fairy tale, there are times when Bean’s book feels uneven and haphazard. A few lines try much too hard for laughter, and at times the social commentary feels forced. (When commenting on the Prince, one says, “That man a world leader? But he appears to have a heart and mind and soul.” And the combination of sincerity and snark, old-fashioned romance and modern-day equality, is not always seamless. But the charm of this talented cast helps to elevate Bean’s book when needed.

Osnes, one of Broadway’s leading ladies, is a graceful and sweet Cinderella with glimpses of real spunk that lurks underneath her seemingly delicate exterior. Fotnana brings a quiet humor to Topher that is much-needed in some of the more over-written scenes. Clark dazzles (literally), singing beautifully and flying gracefully across the stage. (The sets, by Anna Louizos, beautifully evoke the mystical fairy-tale atmosphere of the show, as do William Ivey Long’s costumes.)

And when the tone of the show edges on too sweet, thank goodness, there is Harada as the overlooked stepsister, providing snark and sarcasm in ample amounts. Her character is written to have very low self-esteem, being overlooked and ignored by her mother, despite trying gamely to please her all the time. One of my favorite moments of the second act took place when, after blowing her chances with the prince and being snubbed by her family, she settles onto the steps of the palace with other women from the ball, takes off her high heels, and bursts into the frustrated song, “Why Would a Fellow Want a Girl Like Her?” While in theory I do not condone women attacking other women, I found this moment so relatable that I couldn’t help but laugh the entire song. While sarcasm such as that might disturb the “pink pale mist of a foolish dream”, as the Fairy Godmother describes it, it was very welcome in this show.

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