Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Through Dec. 29
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn
By GWEN OREL
Richard Rodgers sure could write a waltz.
When gallant Prince Topher (Billy Harrigan Tighe) takes Cinderella (Ashley Blanchet) into his arms, to the lilting “Ten Minutes Ago,” the entire Paper Mill audience sways.
It’s so romantic.
And a whole new generation of boys and girls believes in love at first sight — more or less, because in Douglas Carter Beane’s book (it was on Broadway in 2013, starring Santino Fontana and Laura Osnes), Ella and the prince have actually met once before, when she gave him a drink of water. But, as we hear more than once, they have never really seen one another before.
The kind of world in which this iteration of the fairy tale takes place is one where a town firebrand named Jean-Michel (Andrew Kober) tries to gain the prince’s ear and stop his greedy advisor Sebastian (Christopher Sieber) from abusing peasants.
Jean-Michel would be an escapee from “Les Mis,” if “Les Mis” were bright colors softened by love. He has a thing for one of the evil stepsisters, you see, who is not so much evil as bubble-headed.
In this version, the prince isn’t an eligible young bachelor his parents want to see married. In fact, the parents are dead, and adviser Sebastian is kicking people off their lands and things like that. Cinderella is not just a poor orphan whose stepmother and stepsisters bully her: she’s saucy, even a teensy bit snarky, but she’s also kind.
So kind is she that at the ball she transforms a game of ridicule into a game of kindness. All the sophisticated guests, wanting to be in with the popular girl, come up with nice things to say to one another.
When the clock strikes midnight, Cinderella loses her shoe — then turns around to pick it up. Carter Beane has to invent another gathering, a banquet, to get those crazy lovebirds together. It’s looking bad for a moment when Jean-Michel and his peasants show up, but Cinderella manages to save the day and solve the kingdom’s problems by bringing along a book of stories Jean-Michel had actually brought for her one kind stepsister Gabrielle (Rose Hemingway).
The answers are all in chapter two, Cinderella tells her prince. (What is this book? Is it Das Kapital? Fourier? The Constitution?)
If the politics goes over the head of the little ones the sweetness does not. Little girls in princess gowns sit on Paper Mill’s plush red chairs, feet barely hanging over. At intermission a little boy swings a wooden sword.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical actually began as a television special in 1957, starring Julie Andrews. Lesley Ann Warren, Stuart Damon and Ginger Rogers starred in the 1965 version. The TV versions are shorter than an evening at the theater, so songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue have been seamlessly interpolated to Carter Beane’s version. A total of four songs are added, including “Now Is the Time,” which had been cut from “South Pacific,” sung by Jean-Michel, and “There’s Music in You,” sung by the Fairy Godmother. Montclair’s Donna English plays the role, and her voice is so pure and lovely she even makes this poor man’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” work. And she makes you believe when she sings “Impossible.”
Joann M. Hunter’s choreography quickly establishes a broad, pratfall tone, as the prince’s knights attack an ogre with exaggerated gestures and what looks like hand jive.
Director Mark Hoebee has fun with the fairy-tale bright colors: when people at the ball realize which man is the prince, he has them react like adolescents with Beatlemania.
William Ivey Long’s costumes include some downright magical onstage transformations.
Christopher Sieber’s Sebastian seems more flustered than truly devious. Greedy, yes, but not really committed to it, which in itself is kind of funny.
Even the evil stepmother isn’t all that evil, as played by Dee Hoty. When she falls under the spell of Cinderella pretending to “imagine” what the ball was like (in fact, she’s just describing it), she sings along with her two silly daughters.
About those silly daughters: Carter Beane has the stepmother hilariously call them “real daughters: Charlotte (Angel Lin) is a frizzy-haired, demanding Cyndi Lauper type, while Gabrielle (Rose Hemingway) reveals a giddy sweetness just longing to be kind. It’s to all their credit that the happy ending for all feels earned.
Kober’s Jean-Michel wants to do good, and because the Tighe’s Ken-doll prince also wants to do good, all will be well.
In fact everyone, including sweet, sassy Ella, will live Happily Ever After.
Sure, you know the ending before you arrive. But with such songs as “In My Own Little Corner” and “A Lovely Night” you’ll enjoy the journey.