The title Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella seems designed to do a couple of things: to make the composers more hip (+ is a cooler connective than &) and to let audiences know that if they’re expecting a chorus or two of “bippity boppity boo” (see: Disney, Walt) they’ve come to the wrong place.
They’ve also come to the wrong place if they’re expecting a copy of the 90-minute 1957 television special with Julie Andrews in the title role (later versions starred Lesley Ann Warren and Brandy).
Audiences who are looking to be delighted, looking for an antidote to Annie? Well now, those are the folks who’ve come to exactly the right spot. This Cinderella, a smartly assembled re-tooling of the classic 17th century French fairy tale – empowerment is a major theme – has a low syrup content and charm to spare.
I’ll confess that I came with low expectations and saw little need for an attitude adjustment during the first scene, which is a more effortful “Once Upon a Mattress” than “Once Upon a Time.” Here we meet the kingdom’s heir apparent Topher (Santino Fontana channeling Paul Sand), who’s less than thrilled about going into the family business, and leaves most of the decision making to his crafty, masses-oppressing regent Sebastian (Peter Bartlett).
Matters improve quickly with the appearance (spoiler alert) of Topher’s future wife Ella (Laura Osnes in a lovely performance) and Topher’s future in-laws, notably Ella’s unpleasant stepmother Madame (the sublime Harriet Harris), who’s given to hailing her biological offspring as “Actual daughters!” and “Daughters who count!”
So let’s run down the list: beautiful, kind-hearted maiden dressed in tatters. Check. Nasty stepmother. Check. Fairy godmother. Check. Clock striking curfew way too soon. Check. Footwear left behind. Check. Love conquers all. Check. But librettist Douglas Carter Beane has overlaid the familiar story with one that involves rabble-rouser Jean-Michel (Greg Hildreth) fighting for the rights and stolen property of the kingdom’s beleaguered citizenry. Beane also made one of Cinderella’s stepsisters her confidante rather than her nemesis, added a secondary romance and played with the glass slipper trope.
The canny dialogue perfectly captures the cynicism of those in power. When, for example, the unscrupulous Sebastian suggests some bread and circus pageantry to distract the kingdom’s unhappy subjects, Topher naively asks “A royal weddng? Does that work?” “Every time!”
There’s even a sly nod to Disney whimsy in the form of a squirrel peeking out of the knot in a tree.
But none of this would amount to much without the R & H score, one of the duo’s last: “In My Own Little Corner,” “Ten Minutes Ago,” “The Stepsister’s Lament” (sung by the invaluable Ann Harada) and the glorious “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?"
“Me, Who Am I,” which was cut from “Me and Juliet;” “Now is the Time,” which was dropped from “South Pacific;” and “I Haven’t Got a Worry in the Word,” borrowed from “Happy Birthday,” have been added to the mix. They don’t make a particular case for re-evaluation, but they do no harm.
The show could be a little shorter and, sorry, but Victoria Clark – otherwise exemplary as the fairy godmother – looks like an uneasy pink butterfly when she is, quite unnecessarily, airborne.
Small nits. Take your child. Borrow a child and go. The ball-gown conjuring of costume designer William Ivey Long is worth the price of admission.