Get ready to be swept away by the twinkling timelessness of “Cinderella,” the definitive rags to riches fairy tale that has charmed and inspired audiences all over the world.
AUGUST 10, 2023 — TUSTIN, CA
Talk about instant makeovers! First an ordinary pumpkin turns into a beautiful carriage complete with a team of carousel horses. And then — this is the best part — Cinderella’s retro peasant-chic outfit is transformed, right before our eyes (and while she’s singing), into a red-carpet ball gown.
But like the reinvented fairy-tale heroines of the past several decades, from Disney’s “Little Mermaid” onward, this Cinder”ella” is no passive damsel waiting for a rescuing knight. She takes charge of her destiny, so much so that she doesn’t lose that glass slipper; she...well, let's just say she controls her narrative. And, by the way, the prince must undergo a similar process of re-education, which will allow him to conquer his self-doubts and introduce democracy to his kingdom.
Yes, the Tustin Area Council for the Fine Arts is, once again, hosting Broadway in the Park at Peppertree Park in Old Town Tustin. TACFA, in their 21st annual signature production of a hit Broadway play, is thrilled to be bringing one of the most beloved musicals to life in the park — Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” — running from August 8th through August 12th, combining professional actors with local talent, and bringing a big piece of the Big Apple to Old Town.
This is probably one of the biggest local events you will enjoy this year. The open-air theater of Peppertree Park is transformed into a Broadway theater with a twist…. you bring your own seating and dinner with you. Some enjoy the convenience of table settings that offer a premium view. Others enjoy the simplicity of sitting in a couple of comfortable beach chairs while enjoying a glass of wine and a picnic dinner. If you are too busy to cook, you will find plenty of food for a reasonable price.
With a new book by Douglas Carter Beane (“The Little Dog Laughed”), this wised-up, wit-spackled Cinderella seeks to erase all mental images of Julie Andrews and Lesley Ann Warren staring dewily at waxen princes, and instead, the main characters are reborn as well-meaning, quarterlife-crisis victims turned unlikely class warriors, updating the target audience from preadolescent girls to mostly adult show-goers.
As I watched this glittery patchwork of a show, which has a much spunkier kick to it than Hammerstein’s original work, and is directed by Becky Lythgoe, of Lythgoe Family Productions fame, it became immediately clear that this “Cinderella” was resolved to be reassuringly old-fashioned and refreshingly irreverent, sentimental and snarky, sincere and ironic, all at once.
But, the magic of this production lies sublimely in the casting and features TACFA veteran Lizzy Sheck, who delivers the role of Ella with grace, humility, and enough sweetness to please. Most of the keynote songs from the original have been retained as well. So, anyone who swooned decades ago over “Ten Minutes Ago,” the prince and Ella’s musical equivalent to Romeo and Juliet’s “palmers’ kiss” scene, will find it still as bewitching here. Ms. Sheck also has many other excellent moments with a strong voice in “In My Own Little Corner,” “Impossible,” and a gorgeous duet with the prince, “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?”
And what about this prince? No mere trophy. Called Christopher in the original, he’s been shortened to “Topher” here, with all the inchoateness and affably shambling nerddom that nickname confers. Grant Hodges is fondly remembered in a turn this past January as the tough-talking, surly Kenickie in Grease at La Mirada Theatre, and casting this master of squiggle-smiling self-effacement here is the linchpin of Director Lythgoe’s vision (and it doesn’t hurt that his mellifluous singing voice blends seamlessly with Lizzy Sheck’s lucid, wide-eyed soprano). “I just don’t even know who I am yet,” he says, before launching into his existential cri de Coeur “Me, Who Am I?”
Overeducated and under-focused, Prince Topher is too dependent on his Rasputinish vizier, Sebastian (the droller-than-droll Robin Walton), who keeps him far away from the real workings of his regressive regime, and tricks the naïve prince into signing bills that repress and rob his people. There’s some sort of Hanseatic recession going on, and Sebastian’s idea of a welfare state is token charity. For this version, a lot has been adjusted to give it politically progressive substance with those mandatory messages about justice, self-esteem and self-empowerment.
But here’s one thing that hasn’t changed: Neo-Ella is still the downtrodden, orphaned stepdaughter of an ambitious harridan (MaryAnn DiPietro, a tart treasure) who smothers the girl’s natural grace and beauty to better show off her own awkward spawn (gawky-sexy Monica Ricketts and daffy-dizzy Kristen Daniels) to the medieval social scene.
But as I mentioned, Ella’s been armored with all the accoutrements of pop postfeminism, including reserves of spunk, wit, snarkiness, choice one-liners, etc.: This Ella — whom the effortlessly appealing Ms. Sheck occupies with poise — is still very much an ingenue, but not the dull sort that just waits around for her dreams to come true. (That famous slipper-slip? I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say it’s not your grandmother’s wardrobe malfunction. There’s actual agency involved.)
Also, Ella is so totes not down with the status quo, eminent-domain-and-peasants-rights-wise. Ms. Sheck, with nothing more than a smile and her preternatural presence — unassuming and all-assuming, at once — bridges a seemingly unbridgeable gap with ease. She convinces us that the woman who sings “I’m as mild and as meek as a mouse / when I hear a command I obey” is the same woman who longs to talk wealth-distribution with the Chief Executive.
As the town rabble-rouser Jean-Michel, Andrew Metzger makes a strong impression and reveals a fresh, impish side to his character. Jean-Michel would be an escapee from “Les Mis,” if “Les Mis” were bright colors softened by love. He has a thing for one of the evil stepsisters, you see, who really are both, not so much evil as simply, effervescent.
Both Ms. Ricketts as Gabrielle and Ms. Daniels as Charlotte have perfected, spot-on voices in their solos and duets, with the wildly entertaining Ms. Daniels an animated delight in the catty, clucking, go-for-broke “Stepsister’s Lament” chorus number with female ensemble members. Charlotte is feistily self-deluded rather than mean, while step-sister Gabrielle has handily headed off in her own direction, falling in love with liberal “firebrand” Jean-Michel.
Together they are a real hoot. When Prince Topher throws a banquet, same week as the ball, hoping Cinderella will come, Charlotte throws herself at the Prince and reminds him (pointing to her body): “This is still an option.” Gabrielle, on the other hand, is so excited to help her new boyfriend feed the homeless that she ecstatically blurts out, “I get to ladle!” Yep … not your childhood fairy tale at all.
In the same stately, yet imposing vein, MaryAnn DiPietro is regal while irresistibly funny as Madame, so determined that one of her plain daughters marry royalty and elevate the family social status. (“We are teetering precariously between upper-middle class and lower-upper class.”) But aside from constantly reminding Ella that she isn’t her “real” daughter, Madame isn’t much of a taskmaster in this narrative. She even comes around at the end as quite the lady.
Love blooms, but it’s inseparable from flowering progressivism, and Ella’s half-admitted drive to bag a royal is redeemed by a vague mist of politics. All of this, of course, is facilitated by a fairy godmother named Marie (a great-as-ever Stephanie Andersen), who first appears in rags but quick-changes into something a little more celestial when the time is right (the many near-invisible gown-transformations from costumer Haven Hanson are the most impressive aspect of the physical production).
“You’d be surprised how many beautiful gowns have crazy women in them,” deadpans Marie. And we’re sold. Ms. Andersen is one of the favorites of the house, an eccentric fairy godmother whose mirthful promises to make dreams come true are delivered in a soprano voice of piercing beauty.
It's perfect casting right down to the chorus — smooth staging, aching melodies and fluid hoofing heals all techie rifts before you even notice them (a perfectly wonderful production except for a few minor sound issues: mics buzzing, planes landing at John Wayne).
“Cinderella” may not be an infinitely interpretable text — Beane seems to be always on the razor’s edge of flapdoodle and distributive justice — but even so, “Cinderella” is as solidly entertaining a musical as they come, featuring one of the finest company ensembles to date, and what might even be the couple of the year: just a couple of regular folks, the soul-searching blue-blood and the enchanted-orphan, trying to get along…and getting along rather well indeed.
PRESENTING, THE 21ST ANNUAL BROADWAY IN THE PARK: RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA, PRESENTED BY TUSTIN AREA COUNCIL FOR FINE ARTS, IN COOPERATION WITH LYTHGOE FAMILY PRODUCTIONS. Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, New Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Original Book by Oscar Hammerstein II, Orchestrations by Danny Troob, Music Adaptation & Arrangements by David Chase; Director Becky Lythgoe, Choreographer Clarice Ordaz, Musical Director Michael Sobie, Production Designer Rick Frendt, Technical Director Phil McCandlish, Lighting Operator Hunter Shomph, Video Programmer Matthew Melliger, Sound Designer Julie Ferrin, Lighting Designer Crystal Shomph, Costume/Makeup Supervisor Haven Hanson, Stage Manager Cassy Sottile, Assistant Stage Manager Bri Westad, Company Manager Jill Barnes, Producer Kristopher Lythgoe.
WITH: LIZZY SHECK (Ella); GRANT HODGES (Prince Topher); ROBIN WALTON (Sebastian); KRISTEN DANIELS (Charlotte); MONICA RICKETTS (Gabrielle); MARYANN DIPIETRO (Madame); STEPHANIE ANDERSEN (Marie); ANDREW METZGER (Jean-Michel); DORAN BUTLER (Lord Pinkleton); TYLER SHILSTONE (Duke of Cheshire/Ensemble); MARCUS BROOKS (Ensemble); AVA CARPINELLO (Ensemble); ARIELLE DETTMER (Ensemble); CHRISTOPHER HO (Ensemble); PIERCE JOHNSON (Ensemble); RAE MARTINEZ (Ensemble); BROOKLYN VIZCARRA (Ensemble); ALISSA WILSEY (Ensemble); ADDISON CHANG (Junior Ensemble/Raccoon); NAVA TATE (Junior Ensemble/Fox).
Old Town Tustin’s Peppertree Park is located on First Street between “B” & “C” Streets. General Seating starts at $15; Reserved Tables start at $35. Performances are scheduled for
Aug 8, 2023 at 07:45 pm (Tue), Aug 9, 2023 at 07:45 pm (Wed), Aug 10, 2023 at 07:45 pm (Thu), Aug 11, 2023 at 07:45 pm (Fri), Aug 12, 2023 at 07:45 pm (Sat). General Admission Seating Entrance is on “C” Street. Reserved Seating and Tables entrance is located on “B” Street. Box Office Opens at 5:00pm all nights; Gates Open at 5:30pm all nights, and the show begins promptly at 7:45PM.
For tickets and information, see www.TACFA.org.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: John Mcguire, Photographer