Back in 1957 when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were asked to write a television musical version of the fairy tale Cinderella, Hammerstein suggested that they make no serious departures from the original story as it was first told by the French writer Charles Perrault, who back in the 17th century was widely thought of as the father of the fairy tale literary genre with the publication, in 1697, of “Tales of Mother Goose.” Although, a version of the Cinderella myth can be dated back to ancient times when the glass slipper was a Greek sandal. The German Brothers Grimm’s folk-tale take on the story would not appear until a century later. Basically Hammerstein felt, why trick up a popular fairy tale; just make a musical out of the story everyone fondly remembers from childhood.
Over the years there have been three successful telecasts of R & H’s Cinderella: The first was on black-and-white TV and starred Julie Andrews fresh from her Broadway triumph in My Fair Lady, which turned out to be one of the most watched television programs of the 1950s. In 1965 a young Lesley Ann Warren did a color TV version of the show, and in 1995 the pop music star Brandy Norwood played the role with the late Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother. The last two versions had slightly doctored books to keep up with the changing times, but for the most part were based on Mr. Perrault’s original tale.
Flash forward to March 2013. A new version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella debuts as a lavish, $13 million, fully fledged Broadway musical with a radically rethought book by Douglas Carter Beane and directed by Mark Brokaw. Today what emerges on the stage of the Broadway Theater is a crazy quilt rendering of the original work, which comes magically alive only when the leading players – all stellar performers with marvelous voices – take musical flight with six or seven lilting Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, holdovers from the original TV score, two of which – “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” and “Ten Minutes Ago” – are R&H at their melodious best. To fill out the evening, a variety of trunk songs are used, mostly discards from other R & H shows, but unfortunately none are of the quality of those written for the show’s original score. There are reasons why some songs end up in trunks.
The main problem with the current show is that the story Beane has conjured up seems like it was the contrived brainchild of a Broadway marketer. The basic Cinderella story, granted a charming if fragile tale at best, is here waylaid with what seems like nods to successful family-fare musicals of the past. There is a little bit of Wicked magic wizardry here, some elements from Camelot and Beauty and the Beast, plus a new heavy dose of Les Miserables social consciousness echoing in many ways the Occupy Wall Street movement. I am not against a revisionist approach to any theatrical work, and I have admired and praised many a redo effort in the past, but here the assemblage is just not that freshly inventive or satisfying, but rather predictable and old fashioned, resulting in a pell-mell telling of the Cinderella story.
Prince Charming (Santino Fontana) becomes Topher, a funny young ruler trying to make a name for himself, who just happens to have a wonderful singing voice. Cinderella is Ella (Laura Osnes), also an impressive talent. The formerly wicked stepmother and stepsisters are now are the more genteelly referred to Madame (Harriet Harris) and Gabrielle (Marla Mindelle) and Charlotte (Heidi Giberson). We first meet actress Victoria Clark as a daft and decrepit woman dressed in rags who is magically transformed into Ella’s flying and singing godmother.
Beane’s script is more camp than yarn and is liberally sprinkled with contemporary colloquialisms like “faking it,” “heads up,” and “end of discussion,” the kind you would expect to hear on tween TV shows. Brokow's direction is efficient and ordinary, surprising since you anticipate something more creative from the director of the Yale Institute for Music Theatre.
The chorography by Josh Rhodes is mostly celebratory folk dances and whirling ballroom waltzes. Lots of thought and imagination has gone into William Ivey Long’s sumptuous costumes and Anna Louizos’ lavish storybook settings. Many little girls in the audience sported Cinderella tiaras and seemed mesmerized by the happenings on the stage, but in the end one can’t help but wonder what the great Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein would think of this curious attempt to refresh their classic.