The setup: The Ensemble Theatre's take on Cinderella sheds the gossamer fragility of the fairy tale for broad humor and a lively, rollicking treatment.
The execution: There are two moments of poignant beauty in this Cinderella, once in a flashback as a young Cinderella (Taylor Nelson) moves from a glum mood into one of exciting enjoyment, as she discovers her inner value, in the song "Like a Princess." The second is when an even younger Raiya Goodman encourages the mature Cinderella, defeated by drudgery, to rise to attend the ball.
It is no surprise that moments of exaltation are brought to us by gifted children. The events are framed by a grandmother reading the fairy tale to her two granddaughters, but this adds little to the interest and seems an unnecessary device for such a well-known narrative.
Cinderella is portrayed by the actor listed simply as Teacake, who was so good as Nella in Gee's Bend at the Ensemble Theatre earlier this year, finding the humor in that script. Teacake is reprising the role of Cinderella, which she played a year ago, and she brings a dazzling smile and a solid stage presence to the part, but the main events are painted so broadly that she has no opportunity for the nuances that can break a heart.
The evil stepsisters (Tamara Harper and Roenia Thompson) are SO evil and so insistently cruel that they keep on humiliating poor Cinderella long after we have gotten the point. The stepmother (Rachel Hemphill Dickson) is equally cruel, but she is so vivacious and wonderful that I forgave her instantly (unfair, I know!). Alex Kennedy plays Prince Charming, and he has the stature, posture and looks for royalty, but lacks the expected fire and the titular charm -- the fault may lie in the script, which requires him to be sullen and hostile much of the time.
Act I ends with a wallop as the chariot and six white "mice" arrive, and the pace quickens in Act II, which has some imaginative staging and an amusing mini-"voguing" contest, and here the large cast is able to add to the humor with body language and with choreography that entertains. The ball itself comprises the heart of this act, and the ensemble meshes well with a graceful, handsome set and interesting, opulent costumes to make the fairy tale come to vibrant life.
Of enormous help are Ron Johnson in a skillful performance as the Duke, Kendrick Brown as a Page and Vincent James as a Lord, and the latter two dance up a storm. The ensemble dancers were consistently good, and Constance Washington stood out for her exotic beauty and her adroit use of Chinese fans -- and the red dress didn't hurt. Rennette Brown is excellent as the Fairy Godmother -- though the part is broadly drawn, she rises admirably to the occasion.
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The dictionary defines "camp" as "deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style, typically for humorous effect" -- that is what is intended here, and the evening succeeds in achieving it. The lyrics are not especially memorable, but there was an amusing driving force to the song "Chores, Chores, Chores" and there is a powerful song near the end, "I'm Going On," in which Cinderella tells off her cruel stepsisters in no uncertain terms. While this behavior seems more ruthless than ladylike to me, and a bit out of character in front of her brand-new fiancé (he must wonder what he's getting into), it serves as an authentic catharsis to expiate all the deliberate cruelties we have witnessed, and the audience took to it like a duck to water.
This interpretation was developed by San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company; the music and lyrics are by Carlton Leake, who did the musical direction; and it is directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris. While the basic legend remains intact -- yes, the slipper is there -- this non-Disney interpretation has vitality, strength and a vivid, contemporary flavor. Since it looks like this is going to be a staple of the Ensemble Theatre, future productions might consider tightening the script and giving the Prince a sense of humor and some charm, just as Leake and Harris have enhanced it by adding music and choreography.
The verdict: Strong performances and broad humor coalesce to achieve an evening of fun-filled entertainment, in a contemporary musical retelling of the familiar fairy tale.
The Ensemble Theatre production of Cinderella continues through December 30, 2011, at the George Hawkins Mainstage, Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information or tickets, call 713-520-0055.