Get up and get ready, Houston! Cinderella is back in town, and she’s ready to rumble.
Forget Charles Perrault’s tale and Disney’s animated film, at least for now. Stanton Welch’s production of this age-old fairy tale is a charmer in its own right, and Houston Ballet delighted a full audience in its opening Thursday night performance.
Originally created in 1997 for the Australian Ballet, Welch’s Cinderella first entranced Houston audiences when it premiered in the company’s 2008 season, so the variations from the classic storyline will come as no surprise to many. For one, his brunette Cinderella is a sly, spunky tomboy – a temperament perfectly captured by principal dancer Melody Mennite.
Throughout the ballet, Welch adds a sprinkle of comedy that transcends the fact that two male dancers are cast in the roles of the stepsisters, a tradition that dates back to Frederick Ashton’s 1948 version of the ballet. The obnoxious Grizabella and Florinda, performed by Hayden Stark and Derek Dunn respectively, certainly receive their fair share of chuckles.
So does the corps de ballet, however, particularly in the second act. The curtain opens to reveal a majestic ballroom – a scene of brilliant red and gold that immediately elicits oohs and aahs in the theater. The dancers turn to hush the crowd, which, of course, only provokes a bout of laughter.
At the ball, the egocentric Prince (Charles-Louis Yoshiyama) and his companions slick back their hair and flash grins so cheesy that it almost seems as if jazz hands might make an appearance. Yet, there is nothing remotely tacky about the choreography, and the dancers move impeccably with pristine synchronicity to Prokofiev’s famous score performed by the orchestra, which is led by Music Director Ermanno Florio. Even the stepsisters run, jump, and twirl in pointe shoes as if it were as natural for them as it is for the women, who have trained on pointe for years.
Among the festivity, suddenly everything freezes. All eyes are on Cinderella as she makes her grand entrance. It’s an ephemeral moment of absolute beauty, and Mennite dazzles in her shimmery gold dress as she carefully descends the stairway toward center stage with sparkling fairy dust fluttering around her. She stops for a moment to wipe her nose and scratch her head, a sweet reminder of her character’s realness.
The production also conveys a sense of eeriness at times. Cinderella pays a visit to her mother’s crypt, where ghosts – yes, ghosts instead of mice – create her magical dress and later appear when the clock strikes midnight.
The ghosts maintain their rigid, zombie-like movements all the way through curtain call, a noteworthy performance that joins many others. From the start, Christopher Gray as Buttons, the loveable chimney sweep, impresses with jumps that seem to float in the air. Oliver Halkowich’s portrayal of the Stepmother is callous and wickedly intimidating, and the princesses from Spain and Arabia move with a liquid sensuality that commands the stage. The cast's superb acting and dancing paired with the lush scenery and costumes by the late Kristian Fredrikson make for one powerful performance.
There is a happily ever after to the story, but it, too, differs from the ever so popular fairy tale. In the end, Cinderella finds solace in sincerity, falling for the prince’s secretary, Dandini (Ian Casady). Their final pas de deux against a stunning backdrop of stars is breathtaking.
Needless to say, the evening earned a standing ovation and rightfully so.
The Houston Ballet performs Cinderella at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on March 4 and 11; at 2 p.m. on March 5 and 12; and 7:30 p.m. on March 10. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $25-$195.