Updated: Jun 20
"A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes..."
"Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” that ultimate and most enduring of makeover shows, a work that started out as a Julie Andrews made-for-television musical in 1957 and has since been restyled more often than a nervous movie star during Oscar week, presented a sense of wonder and enchantment even to its final closing matinee performance at Rose Center Theater last Sunday afternoon.
This glittery patchwork of a musical fantasy, starring Tawni Bridenball as Cinderella, and Billy Reed as the Prince, with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Richard Rodgers along with additional songs and a witty adaptation by Douglas Carter Beane, was Directed/Musically Directed by Tim Nelson, Rose Center Managing Director and the award-winning Musical Theatre Chair for the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts, in the biggest and happiest surprise of the local theater season.
“Cinderella” is based upon the French fairy tale “Cendrillon, ou la Petite Pantoufle de Verre,” by Charles Perrault, and the only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical written for television. Grown-ups from different generations will have warm childhood memories of one of three televised versions of “Cinderella”: the first one as noted, maybe the most popular, which starred Julie Andrews (who had just wowed Broadway as Eliza Doolittle) with more than a hundred million people viewing. The 1965 version introduced us to a bouncing, bright-eyed, almost provocative Lesley Ann Warren, and who can forget the 1997 remake starring Brandy, with Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother?
Since then it has been adapted for the stage in a number of versions, including a London West End pantomime adaptation, a New York City opera production that follows the original television version closely, and various touring productions in minor variations. A 2013 adaptation on Broadway starred Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana, with a new book by Beane.
It’s really a simple plotline: It’s the story we all grew up with, the tale about how true love rescues a callously mistreated girl from persecution. Prince Christopher was in a position to soon take over the kingdom, although without a princess by his side. It was quite common in those days that young women who had reached maturity to come out into society at a formal "debut," or debutante ball, for eligible bachelors to consider a view to marriage. The ball given by the Prince, which included his entire domain, was a stroke of brilliance to kill two birds with one stone – to either find his true love Cinderella, or, upon last hope, find an acceptable replacement bride, an unpleasant stopgap, but nonetheless important in his future monarchy.
A lot has been added and deleted over the decades. Some lesser-known songs from the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalog have been jimmied in and then out again (including “Now Is the Time,” a rousing call for social change that was also cut from “South Pacific”). The score floods your brain with Rodgers’s aching melodies, including the bewitching “The Sweetest Sounds.”
Reassurances first: “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful,” “In My Own Little Corner,” and many of the keynote songs from the original have been reinstated here in clarion-clear arrangements. And anyone who, many decades ago, swooned over “Ten Minutes Ago,” the Prince and Cindy’s musical equivalent to Romeo and Juliet’s “palmers’ kiss” scene, will find that it was sung quite fetchingly in this version. The most affecting parallel, in fact, between the traditional story and this up to date “Cinderella” (in a culture without a tone to call its own), is the knotty problem of wanting to be reassuringly old-fashioned and refreshingly irreverent, sentimental, snarky, sincere and ironic, all at once. “I can be whatever I want to be…” says the kind, self-determined heroine.
But there honestly isn’t much to salvage from Hammerstein’s original book, nor the modest rewrites from later broadcasts, nor from the additional tidbits we gleaned from Beane’s book. Here’s what hasn’t changed though: Neo-Cinderella is still the downtrodden, orphaned stepdaughter of an ambitious harridan (the treasured, Mary Murphy-Nelson, one of the strongest character actors in southern California) who smothers the girl’s natural grace and beauty to better show off her own awkward spawn – the gawky-sexy Joy (Stephanie Bull; “The Secret Garden”) and daffy Portia (Trevin Stephenson in drag; “42nd Street”) – to the medieval social scene in the hopes that one of her “plain” daughters marry royalty and elevate her social status. “We are teetering precariously between upper-middle class and lower-upper class.”
This scene, by the way, was worth the price of admission. The three together were screaming hilarious centering around the clucking, catchy “Stepsister’s Lament,” translated into a go-for-broke parodic pastiche caricature that leaves you rolling in the aisles.
Cinderella, whom the effortlessly appealing Tawni Bridenball occupied with poise, is not the dull sort that just waits around for her dreams to come true. Ms. Bridenball, with nothing more than a smile and her preternatural presence bridged the seemingly unbridgeable gap of pauper and prince with ease, bagging a dream date at the immortal ball. When the sweet-voiced, wholesomely beautiful ingénue appeared on stage in the title role, she was already packing dazzle and star quality, even in tatters and rags, and it was heartening to have witnessed her blossom in the string of charmer/femme fatale roles over the years. “I’m as mild and as meek as a mouse / when I hear a command I obey.” Making it look easy, she was the perfect actress to embody the character’s gentle nature and grace.
But what of the Prince? No mere trophy. Called Christopher in the original, he’s been referred to as “Topher” in other versions, with all the inchoateness and affably shambling nerdom that nickname confers. Thankfully, this adaptation has reverted back to the original game plan. Perhaps not a dashing dragon-slayer of fairy-tale legend, but he’s certainly stately – and limber enough to sing, move and look charming all at the same time, not an easy task for many a leading man. Billy Reed is best known for his turn in last spring’s RCT production of “The Secret Garden,” and casting this master of squiggle-smiling restraint is the linchpin of Director Nelson’s vision. (And, it doesn’t hurt that his mellifluous singing voice blends seamlessly with Ms. Bridenball’s luminous soprano.)
The production’s touchstones are those thespians with outstanding voices, like the King, for instance…none other than the celebrated Chris Caputo (“My Fair Lady”), who also happens to be the Set Designer, Technical Designer and Lighting Designer. Laura Schultz’ Fairy Godmother, closing both acts in sublime fashion, sparkled not only in vocal prowess, sailing her way through “Impossible,” delivering a soprano voice of piercing beauty, but also in her magical attire with an out-of-this-world glitzy gown. Another unexpected delight was the operatic tenor of Brandon Lisama as the Herald. “The Prince Is Giving a Ball” has never sounded so regal.
But the majority of songs harmonize around the two main leads, Ms. Bridenball and her betrothed-to-be, Mr. Reed. Oozing syrupy sweetness together, they succeeded in bombasting the audience with lovely vibes and strong chemistry, with many duets, accompanied by the company, culminating in long, exxxxx-tended kisses.
If there’s a theme to Jenny Wentworth’s costumes, it’s “Let’s break the bank and go crazy.” In a parade of big-skirted technicolor dresses, many which would have sent Joan Rivers into overdrive on the red carpet, the women at the cotillion look like puffy peonies in a delicate rainbow of brilliant colors. Apart from Cinderella’s glimmering drop-dead wedding gown at the end of the show (which appears to be poured on her), there are not many pallid pastels in this intense color palette onstage. But those slippers! Even from original conception, Cinderella’s Venetian glass slippers became both a plot point and a running gag. How exactly does one dance in glass slippers in the first place?
As with the form-fitting ankle-length numbers worn by wicked Stepmother and her daughters' multi-layered tulle gowns, these frocks have humor and bite with gold-shot looking fabrics, trimmed petticoats and deep cut-outs, intricate beading and detailed embroidery – and above all, the side-hoop skirts, which function like pinatas.
Typical in that era were debutantes with low cut necklines, cut off at the shoulder with a tight bodice supported by a corset to keep the subject upright and with perfect posture. Some had low decolletage, petticoats and exposed arms. Some with long bouffant styles, simulating either satin, silk, taffeta or velvet, and some with trimmings of lace, pearls, sequins, embroidery, ruffles, ribbons, rosettes or ruching. Not the real thing onstage, of course, but who could tell from a distance? William Ivey Long won a Tony in 2013 for costumes such as these from major designers, and it’s not hard to see why.
Noteworthy roles in the show included Kristin Henry as the Queen, shining in several duets and trios, including “Boys & Girls Like You and Me.” Sam Melvin plays the faithful Steward to the Prince. And the Chef was depicted by David Hubbard. The show is Stage Managed by Robbynn Green. Lights were by Carly Mae Manno; Props by Trish Merrill; Spots by Eric Hearn & Daisy Tye; Wigs by Cliff Senior.
Ensemble members, stars all, were: Olivia Aniceto, Taylor Bannert, Lauren Belt, Brandon Butler, Susann Cellier, Quinn Ewing, Melissa Fox, Robbynn Green, Sierra Henderson, Rylie Herbel, Taylor Herbel, Chloe Hubbard, Amanda Jean, Keely Jimenez, Dominique Johnson-Stroud, Kenzie Jones, Shea Julie, Jaedynn Latter, Candice Lei, Devyn Lietz, Maddy Marks, Jillian Matthews, Zariah Merrill, Try Ozuna, Amelia Posten, Paul Rasoe, Daniel Rodriguez, Cat Sacksteder, David Schroeder, Elise Stechaurer, Valeria Trejo, Xiomara Valenzuela, Sarah Villacarillo, Aly West and Robin L. White.
Yes, the story has grown up, but “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” is still a musical with a childlike heart. Hammerstein and Beane’s book is good-humored and well-tempered, and always on the razor’s edge of jocosity — but every age is entitled to its own stock fantasies. It’s a story as solidly entertaining as they come, featuring one of the finest ensembles and what might be its couple of the year: just a twain of regular folks, the soul-searching blue-blood and the enchanted orphan, purely trying to find each other.
From the shimmer in the shoes to gymnastic, big-Broadway style choreography from Jennifer Simpson-Matthews and Diane Makas, this graceful “Cinderella” offered plenty of spectacle and lots of sparkle. An upgraded, more modern heroine in the personage of Ms. Bridenball was a welcomed add. And, with the help of a fantastic supporting cast, this fairy tale became…a scrumptious trifle that you could eat again and again, and for all its hammy, whimsical moments, charmed theatergoers of all ages.
Be sure to catch Rose Center Theater’s newest, upcoming production, “Gypsy,” playing January 24th through February 1st. Tickets may be reserved now at www.rosecentertheater.com
The Show Report