If I’m honest, my taste in theater runs more in the direction of social critique, or upending expectations of genre and theme. I’m not the dream audience member for a production of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, with its familiar story and heart-on-your-sleeve sincerity.
Yet the production of the musical playing through August 20 at Broadway Rose Theatre managed to both dazzle and tickle me, and even brought a tear to my eye. I was right there with appreciative audience members of all ages.
It may help more reluctant audience members to put the show into context. The original television musical by the fabled duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (think Oklahoma!, Carousel, The Sound of Music, and The King and I) premiered in 1959 starring Julie Andrews in the title role. The version that hit me in the sweet spot of girlhood premiered on television in 1965, and starred Lesley Ann Warren; I distinctly recall watching it any chance I got, so much so that the songs came back to me after more than four decades.
The show had been remounted several times before the version now on stage at Broadway Rose, which premiered as a revival on Broadway in 2013. In that version, the book was updated by Douglas Carter Beane to put some light meat on the bones of the story.
The circumstances of its heroine (identified here as “Ella” rather than by her stepmother’s effort to downgrade her identity to ash) awaken in her a concern for the poor and downtrodden in her community. That concern is echoed by a new character, Jean-Michel, an idealist who woos one of the stepsisters, and evoked in Ella’s handsome prince, dubbed Topher, here a well-meaning orphan whose awareness has been hindered by his power-hoarding guardian. Ella captures Topher’s heart not only with her beauty but also with her social conscience.
I mean it when I say that the meat here is light; the new elements are presented with sincerity but not depth, and the show ultimately doesn’t take itself overly seriously. Indeed, as capably directed by Lyn Cramer, this production manages a balance of serious intention without pretension. The concerns about social injustice are mixed with a concern for community voice, yet Topher’s awakening has some moments of silliness. (Watch for his insistence, with a flourish, that he must locate his mystery woman (Ella) because “she is my DEStiny!”) The ethics are sound, but they are not really this musical’s reason for being.
Its reason for being is where it has always been located: in beautiful music, and magic, and movement, and costumes, and true love. This production is strongest in its music—the cast is full of wonderful vocalists, accompanied by a 13-piece live orchestra. Jennifer Davies soars as Ella, as does Eric Asakawa as Topher; their duets in particular are breathtaking. And Leah Yorkston in the transformed role of fairy godmother (hiding at first in the guise of a vagrant) sings some of the show’s most stunning moments. It’s likely that older audience members like myself may uncover deep wells of attachment to these beautiful songs (whose words came back to me across the decades); younger audience members may build their own attachments.
Good staging and direction holds the magic well. This 22-person cast capitalizes on the scale of its production numbers; it is full of capable dancers, the choreography is playful, and the action never drags.
There are wonderful moments of comedy. Lisamarie Harrison as Madame, Ella’s stepmother, is a pro at drawing every bit of humor out of the wickedness of self-absorption, and Sarah Aldrich wins over the audience with a broadly funny portrayal of the evilest stepsister. They and Lorna Baxter as the milder stepsister, also very good, convey the entitlement and opportunism that drives the evil in this story and that is also quite shiftable even without a convincing transformation. And Asakawa as Topher has some unexpectedly funny moments as well.
Finally, the costumes here deserve a deep bow of respect. Lovers of beautiful gowns will have plenty to marvel about here; the designers here (Travis Grant, with Maine State Music Theatre) have taken seriously the task of building a dreamworthy world.
The audience response was enthusiastic. I sat next to an older couple who held hands and murmured appreciation throughout the entire show, and spent the hour following the show unpacking every detail with a very appreciative seven-year-old. Cinderella is based on an archetypal story, and even without aiming for depth, this musical stokes deep attachments. Even the most cynical audience members may find themselves wiping away a tear or two.
- Company: Broadway Rose Theatre Company
- Where: Deb Fennell Auditorium, 9000 S.W. Durham Road, Tigard
- Continuing through: Aug. 20
- Ticket/schedule information: Here