Thursday, May 5, 2016

"Rodger + Hammerstein's Cinderella"

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Richard Rodgers (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics and original book),
Douglas Carter Beane (new book)

Andy Huntington Jones as Prince Topher & Kaitlyn Davidson as Cinderella with Cast
Once upon a time originated a now-centuries-old tale with origins both East and West about a little girl in unfortunate, oppressive home circumstances who suddenly finds justice, love, and fortune.  Chinese, Italians, The Brothers Grimm, and finally Walt Disney further evolved the story of the girl the English-speaking world came to know as Cinderella; and in 1957, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II performed their musical and lyrical magic to create a television musical starring none-other than the young Julie Andrews.  Fifty-six years later after more tries on the small screen and on stages around the globe, their glorious music finally arrived on Broadway, encased in a new book by Douglas Carter Beane. 

Retaining the basic, rags-to-riches framework, the latest version -- now entitled Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella -- adds strong themes of fighting economic injustice, a prince much more than just charming, and a to-be-princess who inspires her prince into democratic action with her brains and bravery and not just her beauty.  Oh, and there are still the cute forest animals with personality, the evil stepmother (but one now redeemable), and a most-amazing fairy godmother.  To the SHN Orpheum stage comes a touring version of the 2013 Broadway hit still packed with the Great White Way’s glitz and glamour, melody and majesty, and a few visual tricks that are exciting and eye-popping.

After the kind of glorious Overture all fans of Richard Rodgers expect, a brief prologue provides a glimpse of the story’s heroine gathering bounty from the forested floor as she briefly establishes the theme of the her own plight and that of the impoverished society around her.  Looking at Nature’s surrounding beauty, Ella (called “Cinder”-Ella by her bitter stepmother) sings in soft tenderness, “It makes you wish that the world could be as lovely as it looks.”  Kaitlyn Davidson’s sweet, innocent voice will throughout the evening’s tale float with ease across a wide range of perfect-pitch notes, will sparkle with intoned wit, and will reach emotional heights with a non-distorted volume that grabs and holds attention.

That her own and her world’s answer for fairness may be closer at hand than Ella imagines comes from the revised book’s new emphasis on Prince Topher, who next appears in the same forest and formally opens the musical singing (while also killing giant monsters and dragons) a self-probing “Me, Who Am I?”  He ponders in notes, “Me, who am I?  ... A dope who dreams like a lion but wakes up like a lamb ... a jerk who wants to do what’s right but often does what’s wrong.”  Andy Huntington Jones brings an initial, boyish, ‘aw-shucks’ manner with not a hint of royal cockiness as well as a strong tenor voice that will later prove able both to soar in clear volume and explore quiet heights in soft falsetto. 

Blair Ross, Kimberly Faure, Lulu Picart & Kaitlyn Davidson
The well-known storyline and its familiar characters play out in wonderful ways with just enough added twists and introductions to bring new intrigue in imaginative ways.  Blair Ross is the bitter stepmother, Madame -- cynical in voice, haughty in raised nose and downcast eyes, and dismissive of anyone not her supposed, societal equal.  Lulu Picart is Step-sister Charlotte whose hair flies out like great starched wings on either side of her round, little head and who walks around and snorts more like a cowhand than a lady-in-waiting in her mountains of ridiculously pink taffeta.  Kimberly Faure is the taller Stepsister Gabrielle, also totally silly in her pretzel-braided hair and over-done dresses of orange, but who from breaks the expected mold to show sincere sympathy for Ella (when Madame is not looking) and to harbor a secret love for a local do-gooder and rabble-rouser, Jean-Michel (the fiery in spirit, big-voiced in song, David Andino).  Each of Ella’s step-relatives does much to draw deserved laughs; but when they join Ella in a wonderfully performed “A Lovely Night” as they all reminisce about the Prince’s Ball (Ella, only imagining, of course), we begin to see that maybe under all that make-up, wiggery, and puffed-up petticoats, each might also have a heart and some soul.

Lauren Sprague & Kaitlyn Davidson
The other must-have character is of course the Fairy Godmother, in this version first appearing as the old, rag-enrobed Marie, a beggar woman everyone but Ella thinks is crazy.  Marie’s transforms into bigger-than-life presence when she bursts forward and astounds the audience, drawing gasps and applause, by turning from tattered hag to a splendidly attired goddess (a magical moment soon to be repeated by Ella’s quick turn from simple smock into all-white, gowned glory).   As now Godmother, Lauren Sprague’s stellar voice rings with clarity and near operatic proportions in numbers like “There’s Music in You.”  Together with Ella, they perform with perfection two of the musical’s more iconic numbers, “Impossible” and “It’s Possible.”

To a person, all in this large cast capture in their performances large and small the imagination of the original fairytale and the updated version Messieurs Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Beane grace on this stage.  Blake Hammond is terrific as the sneaky, sleazy viceroy of the Prince who has designs how to control him and his kingdom and who has no love for the young princess that Topher is so addled over.  Chauncey Packer takes the relatively minor part of Lord Pinkleton and becomes a major vocal highlight of the evening each time he announces in song the next ball or banquet.  Large cast numbers, such as “The Prince Is Giving a Ball,” are full sung harmony and well-done dance and peak in beauty of music and movement in the climatic wedding and “Finale.”

Kaitlyn Davidson as Cinderella Is Whisked Away
Most members of the original production team from New York contribute to this spectacularly looking and sounding road version.  Together, they acquired many 2013 Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle nominations; and the Orpheum stage attests to the deservedness.  Director Mark Brokaw maintains a great balance between nostalgic touches and nods to a new age and generation and adds new enchantments that even a Disney would admire with envy.  William Ivey Long won the 2013 Tony for his sumptuous and color-rich costumes (and of course, glass slippers), and their magnificence lives on in this tour while much fun also comes from Paul Huntley’s wig designs.  Anna Louizos has kept the look of the original Broadway set with big forests, the pop-up look of a storybook-like home and village, and a staircase just grand enough for lost shoe and wedding march.  And no one can go away without memories of her diamond-sparkling, rotating carriage and horses that suddenly appear from a lone pumpkin and a few scampering animals.  Josh Rhodes’ invigorating choreography, Kenneth Posner’s lighting, and Nevin Steinberg’s sound all provide finishing touches, with Danny Troob’s music direction of a fine, local orchestra putting the icing on the wedding cake.

Young and old alike, first-timers and repeat-audience, will find much to relish and revel in this touring Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella at SHN’s Orpheum.  The main negative is that the visit is short, with a closing coming only a few short days after the much-applauded, much-enjoyed opening.

Rating: 5 E

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella continues through May 8, 2016 at the Orpheum Theatre, 192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at

Photo Credit:  Jeremy Daniel

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