"CINDERELLA" through Sept. 7, Hale Centre Theatre, 9900 South Monroe Street, Sandy (801-984-9000 or hct.org); running time: two hours, 10 minutes (one intermission)
SANDY — How do you make a romantic fairy tale, complete with a damsel in distress and handsome prince, feel current? During opening night of Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” at Hale Centre Theatre, the company de-stressed the distressed damsel and added brains to her beauty, creating a more identifiable heroine and in many respects, a more satisfying production.
In playwright Douglas Carter Beane's updated version that opened at Hale Centre on Monday night, Ella — or Cinderella (Shae Robins, M/W/F cast) — was already in the trenches of working out her own destiny when Prince Topher (Preston Taylor M/W/F cast) came along.
And while he ultimately rescued her from a life of servitude, she quickly showed she was no lightweight. In fact, it was Topher who was a bit of a buffoon — a pouting man-child who fought real dragons but also played with toy dragons in his castle. Ella was not afraid to tell him how to do his job, and apparently, that was the prince’s love language.
Topher was not only an out-of-touch leader, he was a bimbo, intentionally fashioned to set the stage for his transformation alongside Ella’s. The problem was, in so doing, their blossoming romance became a hard sell. She was kind, smart, beautiful and likeable. When they first met, he was none of those things. So why, exactly, did she fall for him in the first place? We may never know.
If you’ve seen the original made-for-television musical adaptation that aired in 1957 starring Julie Andrews, Beane's fresh script is certainly a departure. In it, characters have backstories and developed personalities. Subplots appear, adding interest and dimension to carry what HCT director Dave Tinney called in the playbill an “otherwise 10-minute sketch into a three-act musical.”
One step sister, for instance, turned out to have a heart and took up with the handsome leader of a peasant revolt. Fairy Godmother Marie, known as the town “nutcase,” proved to be more than she appeared. Prince Topher, also an orphan, had his own journey to undertake. He had to wriggle out from under the thumb of his sinister regent, Sebastian, who played the young prince like a fiddle — until Ella stepped in and opened Topher’s eyes to the abuse of the townspeople at the hands of Sebastian.
While the affairs of state and the threat of an uprising made for a meatier plot, the political subterfuge may be a bit heavy for the little ones in the audience. It is still a fairytale after all.
And the ad-nauseum push to be snarky, quirky and irreverent gave the overall impression of a script that was trying too hard to make “Cinderella” fresh and hip. There were plenty of funny lines, to be sure, but also plenty that just felt obnoxious and even a bit cringe-worthy, a feeling I suspect is similar to when my teenager spotted his grandma “dabbing." In an effort to be not-your-grandma’s-Cinderella, the new book seems to reject many of the timeless tale’s simple, old-fashioned roots in deference to pop culture references and slang.
Aside from the overbearing attempts at snark, there is still plenty to love about the production.
One delightful scene early involved revolution-minded Jean-Michel (Kelton Davis M/W/F) rousing the townsfolk into action, only to be strategically eclipsed by Sebastian’s (B.J Whimpey, M/W/F) announcement of a ball. The otherwise lifeless song “A Prince is Giving a Ball” took on hilarious irony when mashed together with an excavated Rodger’s and Hammerstein call-to-arms song “Now is the Time” (created for and then scrapped from “South Pacific”).
The rest of the score is also majestic, made lovelier by the lilting and effortless soprano skills of Robins and Taylor's strong and commanding tenor voice. They breathed new life into songs like “In my Own Little Corner,” “Impossible,” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful” and “A Lovely Night.”
Michelle Blake (M/W/F) played the Fairy Godmother, Marie, with gusto and Rachel Bigler (M/W/F) lauded big laughs for her awkward romantic adventures and spastic dance moves as the kind and silly stepsister, Gabrielle.
Other highlights included the absolutely breathtaking sets by Kacey Udy and costumes by Mary Ann Hill, which did not disappoint the tiara-topped young audience members. The pumpkin carriage that floated through the air was a masterpiece of golden latticework bedecked by twinkling lights and flowers. Cinderella’s frothy white ball gown was every bit worthy of a fairy tale, and her dazzling, spinning wardrobe transformations (there’s more than one) were a flicker-fast magic trick that evoked oohs and aahs.
Despite some misses in the script, HCT’s “Cinderella” hit all the other high notes Monday night, most importantly fulfilling the expected fairy-tale fantasies. Plus, there’s a take-home message. When Ella — Cinderella — was reunited with the prince and the world was set right, she left her old life behind, but not her cruel nickname. Forgiving her offending stepmother and sister, she declared she’ll keep the name Cinderella, “So that from now on, when anyone thinks something is impossible, they’ll just say my name, and know better.”
Content advisory: Hale Centre Theatre's Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" contains political intrigue but is largely suitable for all ages. No children under 5 permitted in theater.