Friday, April 5, 2013

A Fairytale Fractured Beyond All Repair

Review:  Cinderella

Hello, Young Lovers:  Santino Fontana and Laura Osnes enjoy a waltz is the Broadway revival of Cinderella

When the lights come up on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, we are treated to a silent tableau of the titular heroine gathering food in an idyllic, storybook forest.  A minute later, the Prince (here named Topher for reasons neither apparent nor consequential) and his footmen are slaying a tree giant, and the juxtaposition of those two images tells you everything you need to know about this rendition of the classic fairy tale.  Heavily rewritten in an attempt to be more hip, modern, and equally accessible to boys and girls, this new version of Cinderella completely eschews the old-fashioned charm that has allowed the property to endure for more than fifty years.

To be fair, the hour-long television musical Rodgers and Hammerstein originally wrote for a young Julie Andrews is too slight a story to be transferred directly to the stage, and padding it out with new plot points and a few of the duo’s trunk songs is not an inherently bad idea.  But surely the producers could have found someone better suited to the task than playwright Douglas Carter Beane, whose relentless snark is in complete opposition to the exceedingly earnest tone Rodgers and Hammerstein are known for.  Making matters worse is the fact that Beane is just god-awful at his job, as anyone who suffered through his odious work on Sister Act and Lysistrata Jones can attest. 

Possessing zero talent for characterization and a rudimentary at best understanding of proper story structure, Beane fills his musical librettos with an unending series of “punch lines” that sound like the improvisations of mildly amusing teenagers.  In Cinderella, this includes having characters exclaim “Seriously?” after being told to execute any unsavory task and commenting on how the placement of certain props makes “zero design sense.”  Beane and director Mark Brokaw have also saddled the show with a blatantly political subplot about bringing democracy to the Prince’s fairytale kingdom, a story thread so clumsily executed that it makes South Pacific’s simplistic observations about race seem like a graduate-level thesis in comparison.  By the time the people of the royal court decide to amuse themselves by trading insults in a game called Ridicule, you can’t help but laugh at how completely Beane has missed the mark, and hope that poor Rodgers and Hammerstein aren’t aware of what’s been done to their show.

It is physically painful to watch genuinely talented performers like Laura Osnes, Victoria Clark and Harriet Harris struggle to make such atrocious material work.  In many ways, Osnes is ideally cast as Cinderella – or Ella, as the show obnoxiously insists upon calling her – and when allowed to embrace the material’s traditionalist leanings she is a veritable delight.  Winsome without descending into blandness, Osnes and her lovely soprano are the perfect embodiment of the fairy tale princess, and watching her struggle to come up with an in-character reaction the sarcasm that permeates this show is almost depressing.  As she continues her ascent to leading lady status, one hopes that Osnes’ next show will finally combine the critical and commercial success this hard working actress so desperately deserves.

As her Prince Charming, Santino Fontana is exactly that, even if Beane’s writing forces him to play up the character’s buffoonish qualities.  Fontana seems appropriately lost as a young man struggling to find himself, and his infatuation with Cinderella is entirely believable.  Victoria Clark is positively enchanting as the Fairy Godmother, and her second act solo “There’s Music in You” is sung in the deeply felt, full-bodied manner befitting a majestic Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad.  (It should be noted that musical adaptor David Chase has flawlessly integrated the trunk songs and extended interludes with the existing score, creating one of the few instances where this production’s additions feeling like a natural extension of the source material.)

The villains of the piece are more problematic, due in no small part to Beane’s inability to decide whether they are meant to be truly menacing or mere comic relief.  As the wicked Stepmother, Tony-winner Harriet Harris spends two thirds of the evening spouting off one liners before being required to suddenly switch to genuine maliciousness and then again to heartfelt repentance, a horribly rushed progression no actress could make convincing.  In fact, given the wretchedness of her material Harris comes off remarkably well, with is more than can be said for Peter Bartlett as the devious royal advisor.  Ann Harada struggles mightily as the less attractive of the two stepsisters, but is let down by the decision to make her partner-in-crime Marla Mindelle noticeably less antagonistic than is usual.  Harada is essentially playing both sides of a comedic duo, and although she has some great moments the performance is ultimately ineffective.

Despite all the changes, there are times when this Cinderella actually begins to resemble the traditional version of the story, and when it does the show comes alive.  Cinderella’s onstage transformation and subsequent carriage ride to the ball is every bit as grand and enchanting as you could want, confirming the suspicion that we could have had a fantastic production if the creative team had merely trusted their source material.  Equally enthralling is the sweeping ballad “Ten Minutes Ago” and its accompanying waltz, which recreates old school Broadway spectacle in a most ravishing fashion.  Unfortunately, every time the show seems to get back on course Beane steers it in the complete opposite direction, to the point where he even changes the one thing literally everyone knows about Cinderella (let’s just say that her famed glass slipper makes a rather circuitous journey into the Prince’s possession).

From a production standpoint, this is definitely the Broadway version of Cinderella, with lavish sets and costumes that strike the proper balance between timelessness and modernity.  William Ivey Long’s costumes are gorgeous, and the multiple onstage transformations he creates are literally jaw-dropping.  Anna Louizos’s set design looks like a storybook illustration come to life, and is expertly highlighted by Kenneth Posner’s rich lighting design.  The twenty-person orchestra sounds just as sumptuous as the rest of the production looks, rounding out the technical excellence on all sides.

Ultimately, there is enough merit to this revamped Cinderella that it cannot be completely written off.  The production is visually striking and features some highly talented performers doing valiant work against insurmountable odds.  But unfortunately Douglas Carter Beane’s book is so inherently wrong, in both conception and execution, that the show cannot overcome it.  The production fails as both an old-fashioned musical romp and as an attempt at a clever reinvention of or commentary on the fairytale genre.  Rarely have I been so desperate for the characters in a musical to shut up and start singing, and if I never have to endure another one of Beane’s terrible librettos it will be too soon.  When this Cinderella vanishes at the stroke of midnight, perhaps we should simply let her leave.

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