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Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Music by Richard Rodgers Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
New Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Original Book by Oscar Hammerstein II
Additional Lyrics by Douglas Carter Beane, David Chase, and Bruce Pomahac
Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Choreographed by Josh Walden
The Muny
July 8, 2019

Jason Gotay, Mikaela Bennett (Center) and the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Photo: The Muny

“Muny Magic” is a familiar phrase for the musical theatre company that has become a fixture in Forest Park. So far, the Muny has been firing on all cylinders with their newly refurbished stage and excellently staged productions for their 101st season. The latest show, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, seriously brings the “magic” to the forefront, with a dazzling, energetic and superbly cast production that makes me see the show in a new light, even though I’ve seen this revised version before.

This show isn’t all Rodgers and Hammerstein, even though they’re billed before the title. Although it features a classic score by the legendary team, this version has a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, and a few lyrical additions as well. It’s a revamping of the classic story that retains its Fairy Tale setting but is given a modern twist, with some new characters and more for Cinderella to do than dream of meeting a prince, although she does that too. Here, Cinderella (Mikaela Bennett)  wants to make the world a better place, by showing kindness to those around her and encouraging people–including heir to the throne Prince Topher (Jason Gotay), and idealistic activist Jean-Michel (Chad Burris) to stand up for what they believe. Also, one of her stepsisters, the sweetly goofy Gabrielle (Stephanie Gibson), isn’t mean, and she’s in love with Jean-Michel. The over-the-top vain stepmother Madame (Alison Fraser) is here, making Cinderella’s life miserable and trying to make sure one of her daughters, Gabrielle and the brash, selfish Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) marries the Prince after he invites the eligible women of the land to come to a ball where he hopes to meet his bride. Well, he’s actually more reluctant, and the ball is the idea of his scheming, power-hungry adviser Sebastian (John Scherer), but the ball does happen, and Prince Topher meets the glammed-up Cinderella and falls in love, only for her to flee at midnight and… well, you know the story, or at least you know some of it. There are some added twists here, and the plot is changed up a bit from what you might expect, but the familiar elements are here, from the glass slipper to the pumpkin coach, to the Fairy Godmother, who here is a neglected village outsider named Marie (Ashley Brown), who is treated kindly by Cinderella. In fact, kindness is at the forefront in this production, as personified by Cinderella. Kindness, as well as standing up for one’s convictions, are the major themes here. The familiar songs, from “My Own Little Corner”, to “Ten Minutes Ago”, to “Impossible”, are all here along with some additional songs for a magical, tuneful experience that’s sure to appeal to all ages.

I had seen this show before, when the tour based on the Broadway production first played the Fox Theatre, and I remember liking it, mostly, but not this much. This version at the Muny has an energy and spirit that’s new and works especially well on that giant stage in front of the large Muny audience. It also seems to flow better and, although it’s still not the deepest of stories, it makes more sense here. The casting makes up for a lot of the difference, I think, with no weak links and a lot of memorable performances, led by the truly remarkable Bennett as Cinderella, who has all the presence and warmth required for the role and then some, along with a glorious voice. She also has great chemistry with the appropriately charming Gotay as Prince Topher, who brings a lot of likability to the role along with a smooth, powerful voice of his own. Brown as Marie is also excellent and vocally stunning, as is Victor Ryan Robertson as the prince’s herald, Lord Pinkleton. There are standout comic performances as well, from  Fraser as a gleefully vain Madame, and Cody who has a delightful comic solo in “Stepsister’s Lament”, backed by a strong, energetic ensemble. Gibson is also a delight as Gabrielle, well-matched with the amiable Burris as the idealistic but socially awkward Jean-Michel. The Muny’s Youth Ensemble is employed especially well here, also, operating puppets for the various animals in the play (mice, raccoons, etc.), among other roles. The key word here, I think, beyond “magic” is “energy”. There’s a ton of it in this large, enthusiastic cast, making the production numbers particularly entertaining.

Technically, the show isn’t over the top with the special effects, but it still looks fantastic. There are some fun effects here and there, especially with outfit transformations, and Paige Hathway’s set is whimsical and colorful. There are also dazzling, distinctive costumes by Robin L. McGee, clever puppets by Puppet Kitchen International, Inc. and Eric Wright, fun video design by Nathan W. Scheuer, and dazzling lighting by Rob Denton. The array of brightly colored wigs by Kaitlyn A. Adams also add a lot of quirky flair to the show. The staging is well-paced, with energetic choreography by Josh Walden, and everything is ably backed by the terrific Muny Orchestra led by music director Greg Anthony Rassen.

This is such a fun show. It’s a Cinderella for today that’s about magic and celebrating kindness more than anything else, and it gives audiences a Cinderella and Prince who are credible as a couple, and as equals. It’s also full of whimsical, fantastical spirit, with that classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score that probably will end up playing in your head for the rest of the night. It’s another strong production from a particularly stellar Muny season.

Alison Fraser, Mikaela Bennett, Stephanie Gibson, Jennifer Cody
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella in Forest Park until July 16, 2019

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Cinderella
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
New Book by Douglas Carter Beane
Original Book by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Choreographed by Josh Rhodes
The Fox Theatre
January 20, 2015

Paige Faure, Andy Jones Photo: Carol Rossgg Cinderella National Tour

Paige Faure, Andy Jones
Photo by Carol Rossgg
Cinderella National Tour

The current touring production at the Fox Theatre is billed as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, although this is a version Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves never saw. Based on the Broadway production with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, this touring show is a fairly major expansion of the show that was televised three times in 1957, 1965, and (slightly revised) in 1996, starring Julie Andrews, Lesley Ann Warren and Brandy respectively. With new characters and a new twist that makes this more than just the story of a girl who wants to go to a ball and meet a prince, it’s an intriguing production with some stunning special effects and sumptuous production values that are really the main attraction here.  It’s a show designed to entertain, and that it does, even despite a somewhat convoluted script and good but somewhat uneven cast.

The story is the familiar one with a French setting, with many of the characters having French names, and Beane’s new plot twists. Here, Cinderella (Paige Faure) is still a young women who is treated essentially as a servant by her haughty stepmother, Madame (Beth Glover). She dreams of more than just marrying a handsome prince, though, and only one of her stepsisters, the self-centered, brassy Charlotte (Aymee Garcia) is mean to her. The other stepsister, Gabrielle (Kaitlyn Davidson) is sweet but timid, and secretly in love with would-be revolutionary Jean-Michel (David Andino), who wants to talk to the Prince about how he runs the kingdom, and particularly the oppression of the poor.  The problem is that Prince Christopher Rupert, etc., known as Topher (Andy Jones) is fairly clueless about what has been going on in his kingdom, which has been run by his shady adviser Sebastian (Blake Hammond) while the prince has been away at university.  Upon his return, Topher is looking for his purpose in the world and preparing for his coronation. To keep him from asking too many questions, Sebastian suggests he get married, and host a ball so he can meet eligible women and choose one to be his queen. Meanwhile, the kind but mistreated Cinderella sticks up for the mistreated local eccentric, Marie (Kecia Lewis), not realizing that Marie is the fairy godmother who will be able to help Cinderella get to the ball.  All of these plots intertwine and play out slightly differently than the traditional Cinderella story, with the added political angle and an a somewhat contrived ending.

All the well-known songs are here, like “In My Own Little Corner”, “Ten Minutes Ago”, and “Impossible”, with some additional songs added to support the new script. It’s an admirable attempt to expand the Cinderella story, although there seem to be too many subplots and too neat of a resolution at the end.  The performances are hit-or-miss, as well, but mostly hits.  The strongest impression is made by Faure as the kind but tenacious Cinderella, with her strong stage presence and clear, expressive voice.  She’s paired with the likable Jones as Prince Topher, who has a personable manner and good chemistry with Faure, but lacks a little in stage presence and  noticeably struggles on the higher notes in his songs.  Both stepsisters are standouts as well, with Davidson demonstrating shy sweetness with just the right amount of boldness, working well especially in her scenes with Faure and with Andino’s amiably earnest Jean-Michel. Garcia, for her part, gets a scene-stealing moment with her hilarious song “Stepsister’s Lament” early in Act 2.  There’s also strong work from Antoine L. Smith as royal herald Lord Pinkleton, and Lewis as the eccentric fairy godmother, Marie.   As Sebastian, Hammond is fine although the character is mostly one-dimensional. The weakest link here is Glover as Madame, who underplays the role to the point where most of the character’s best comic moments fall flat.  The leading performers are supported ably by a strong ensemble, in good voice and with a great deal of energy in the dance numbers, executing Josh Rhode’s inventive choreography especially at the ball.

The look and production values of this production are its real strengths.  Anna Louizos’s set takes us into a fairy tale world with an abundance of magic and vibrant color. William Ivey Long’s costumes add to the magical atmosphere as well, in addition to some truly astounding special effects involving characters’ wardrobe transformations, The sometimes whimsical, sometimes romantic mood is set well by Kenneth Posner’s striking lighting, as well. This is a very tech-heavy show, and all the elements blend together seamlessly, making for an enchantingly stylish look and atmosphere.

Cinderella is a much-beloved story that’s been told in many forms over the years, and this latest one has much to recommend it, even though it does have its issues.  What really works more than anything else, though, is its style and spectacle.  Magic is in abundance, and the music is marvelous.  It’s a story that has much appeal for all ages, even with its limitations, it’s an entertaining tale of magic, romance and wonder.

Paige Faure (center) and cast Photo by Carol Rosegg Cinderella National Tour

Paige Faure (center) and cast
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Cinderella National Tour

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The Little Dog Laughed
by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 7th, 2014

Bradley J. Behrmann, Sarajane Alverson Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Bradley J. Behrmann, Sarajane Alverson
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Hollywood is another planet, or at least another land. It’s a fantasy land where everything is perfectly glamorous, people are beautiful (and there’s only one definition of beauty), men are manly (again, one definition), and image is everything. Any resemblance to the real world is purely coincidental, and when anything happens that might disrupt that perfect Hollywood image, it can take a lot of maneuvering to bring things back into line. That’s the premise behind Douglas Carter Beane’s sharply satirical 2006 comedy The Little Dog Laughed, which has been given a hilarious and strikingly staged production by Stray Dog Theatre.

The Hollywood image is one that must be constantly controlled, and one of the people doing the controlling is Diane (Sarajane Alverson), a high-powered agent who represents up-and-coming movie star Mitchell (Bradley J. Behrmann). Currently in New York with Diane trying to secure the film rights to an acclaimed play, Mitchell has a promising career and public image, but his problem is what Diane refers to as his “recurring case of homosexuality”, which Diane hopes to keep under wraps through some carefully managed spin. She even willingly participates in a sham “showmance” with Mitchell even though she is a lesbian.  For Diane, it seems, the personal life of a star doesn’t matter, and even her own life is entirely dominated by her career goals and those of her clients.  Mitchell seems perfectly content with this arrangement, satisfying his own more personal desires in a series of anonymous trysts with young male prostitutes in hotel rooms, until he meets Alex (Paul Cereghino), with whom he shares a mutual fascination that promises to develop into a genuine romantic attachment.  On Alex’s part, the relationship is both intriguing and frightening, challenging him to confront his own sexual identity, since he had insisted that before he met Mitchell, his activities with men had been strictly for the money. For Alex’s occasional girlfriend, the aimless and opportunistic Ellen (Paige Hackworth), this new situation is confusing and threatening, and for Diane it is another challenge to her strictly ordered plan of success.  

There are many issues covered here, from the image-consciousness of Hollywood and show business in general, to commercialism vs. artistic integrity, to personal identity vs. public identity and the struggle for genuine human connection in the midst of all the manufactured “reality”, as well as how sexuality (and particularly homosexuality) figures into the manufactured Hollywood image.  All these issues are covered with cutting humor and a broad, satirical edge. I particularly enjoyed the “meta” elements referencing the various elements of the show’s structure, and the business meeting scene with Mitchell and an unseen famous playwright in which Diane carefully negotiates a business deal, emphasizing the absurdity of expecting a  Hollywood agent to keep her promises and prompting the biggest laugh of the performance with one caustic line.  Everything is over the top, and in Diane’s view, there’s a carefully orchestrated solution for any problem, which is highlighted in the  outrageous, cynical and comically appropriate ending.

Beane’s script is incisive and fast-moving, and director Gary F. Bell and his cast work well to maintain the pace.  The staging is crisp–aided by Rob Lippert and Melanie Kozak’s  stylish, compartmentalized set–and the performances are strong. Timing is of utmost importance, and Alverson especially demonstrates this with masterful precision.  Her performance is the driving force of this production. Clad in costume designer Bell’s succession of severe power suits, Alverson bravely relishes every witty and cutting line, displaying a determination that is at once impressive and frightening, as Diane seeks to maintain order in her brash, efficient manner.  Behrmann is convincing as the jaded and bewildered Mitchell, and Cereghino shows a lot of charisma as the conflicted young Alex, gaining most of the sympathy in this production as his journey of self-discovery and search for fulfillment contrasts with the more self-serving goals of those around him, and his more emotional scenes with Behrmann are particularly affecting.  Hackworth also does a good job, managing to bring some substance to the slight role of Ellen.

This is definitely a play for adult audiences, with its emphasis on sexual themes and brief (and carefully choreographed) scenes of nudity and sexual situations. For grown-ups who are looking for sharp, sophisticated comedy, though, it’s a well-crafted play that makes fun of Hollywood superficiality while challenging the status quo in an outrageously funny way.  Although the Hollywood atmosphere (and particularly the increasing number of openly gay actors) has changed somewhat since this play was first produced, the overall focus on image remains, which makes this play’s jokes still ring true.  The Little Dog Laughed at Stray Dog Theatre provides for an entertaining and uproariously funny evening of theatre.

Paul Cereghino, Bradley J. Behrmann Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Paul Cereghino, Bradley J. Behrmann
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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