The old gal who sits by the embers has still got it!
Ever since her CBS TV debut in 1957 (with Julie Andrews, then appearing on Broadway in My Fair Lady, as the lady of the fireplace), Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical version of Cinderella has beguiled each subsequent generation.
She made her London debut in 1958, with additional songs from R&H's failed Me and Juliet. 1965 saw Lesley Ann Warren find her dream prince in a fresh TV production with an added song from South Pacific, “Loneliness of Evening;” New York City Opera's production in 1993 with script by television legend Steve Allen adapted the original text; color-blind 1997 saw Brandy on TV as the girl with a dream, and another interpolation from R&H's trunk, the anthem “There's Music in You” from the 1953 flop movie Main Street to Broadway. Meanwhile several touring productions came and went, each one altering her appearance.
In 2013, Cinderella finally reached Broadway with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane (As Bees in Honey Drown; The Little Dog Laughed; To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar), which has turned her into a community activist, as well as adding an R&H song cut from South Pacific, “Now Is the Time,” and putting back all the other numbers from the previous adaptations. The successful run closed five months ago, and a national tour began last October. The poor waif's been botoxed, nipped and tucked, and surgically enhanced each time she appears. Naturally – or is that unnaturally? – she's younger than ever in this touring incarnation, presented by Theatre Under the Stars as its final production of the season.
While I can't say much positive about Beane's new book which is an unholy alliance that mixes Hymn to Girl Power, a rallying call for political reform, and the old, old chestnut about “fighting for your dream,” poor Cinderella (the delightful Audrey Cardwell) doesn't have much to fight for. Her stepmom (Beth Glover) is more cranky and snappy than evil, dry as a martini; her stepsisters Gabrielle and Charlotte (Kaitlyn Davidson and Aymee Garcia, a Laurel and Hardy pair) aren't mean at all, just misunderstood; and her handsome prince Topher (an exuberantly befuddled Andy Huntington Jones) is a doofus so green he allows his sinister minister Sebastian (Branch Woodman) to walk all over him and issue edicts that hurt the poor. Fairy Godmother (a belting Kecia Lewis) aids and abets as any good fairy godmother should. The book's all over the place, hip with references to soup kitchens and protest marches, yet never quite jiving with Rodgers' old-fashioned '50 melodic score.
If not up to the best of Mr. Rodgers, the music is filled with his patented major/minor tonality. There's no question whose music this is, you can hear echoes from Sound of Music, South Pacific, and Oklahoma. While the “Cinderella Waltz,” lovely and tuneful, just can't compare to his Ravel-like, wild “Carousel Waltz,” Cinderella's plaintive “In My Own Little Corner” and Fairy Godmother's “There's Music in You,” in the devotional style of ”Climb Every Mountain,” are surefire hits nonetheless. And the rest of the songs are very pleasing to the ear. Most comic is Charlotte's bouncy “Stepsister's Lament,” something saucy Ado Annie might have sung in Oklahoma. “Why would a fellow want a girl like her. A girl who’s merely lovely. Why can’t a fellow ever once prefer a girl who’s merely me.”
Most pleasing of all is Cardwell, an enchantress who doesn't need any help from outside sources to cast her special spell. She sings like an angel, dances especially well (her back bends and supple hoofing are a pleasure to watch), and radiates charm and, yes, spunk, as an energetic, sympathetic Cinderella. We'd watch her any time, as a matter of fact we get to see two transformation scenes.
As the pumpkin balloons into a Christmas ornament coach with twinkly lights, and her forest friends, the fox and raccoon – who I wish had more to do – transform into prancing footmen; raggedy Cinderella spins around and – voila! – she's in a stunning William Ivey Long creation. It's the oldest trick in the book, but it's magical regardless, garnering applause and appreciative “ohhs” from the audience. Act II repeats the feat. Act II basically repeats Act I entirely. There's another gathering of the clan at the palace, this time a feast so Topher can find the beauty who ran out on him at the first act curtain. Cinderella replaces Gabrielle who's off romancing her pudgy Jerry Rubin-esque rabble rouser (David Andino), but stepmom catches the deception and rips the gown to shreds. Deus-ex-machina Fairy Godmother appears (again!) – another spin and voila! – Cindy's encased in flouncy gold lame. (This time wily Cinderella places her glass slipper on the palace steps.) Mr. Ivey won a Tony award for his Necco Wafer palette of pouffes and bustles. The theatrical coup loses none of its effect when repeated. The audience remains gobsmacked.
Even slightly off R&H is better than most. While minimal in setting – where'd they get that house set, Ballets Russes from 1909? – the colorful storybook production waltzes through Beane's not very original updating. The pre-teens in the audience who stayed awake until final curtain (some did not) had a very good time, perhaps even empowering, while the adults appreciated the accomplished cast, smooth staging, and those dreamy melodies. No matter how Cindy changes over the years, those songs are awfully pretty. And what nicer message from a Broadway show than: Be Kind.
Cinderella continues through June 7 at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at tuts.org or call 713-558-8887. $37.25-$123.50.