Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ill-Fitting Updates Can't Deprive 'Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella' of Its Musical Charms -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru Jan. 4, 2015

One of the things I commonly gripe about is that whatever passes for mass entertainment these days seems conspicuously short of social commentary at a time when many common folks have a fair amount about which to complain.

I have often longed for the days when artists like Norman Lear, Sidney Lumet, David Mamet, The Clash and others would rise above the creative din while calling out societal ills in their work.

And while as a title, storyline and shorthand for "surprising success," Cinderella has long been part of my awareness and vernacular, I don't harbor acute affinity for any particular telling that would automatically cause aversion to an updated interpretation.

So in having read about Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella 2013 Broadway bow--originally created for a CBS broadcast in 1957, the R+H musical version has been tinkered with over the years and toured a good bit, but had never previously played Broadway; that production is the source for the current tour now playing in Chicago--I noted that some reviewers disliked the show's new book by Douglas Carter Beane that adds considerable social context, but that others appreciated his attempt to add some societal gravitas to this Cinderella story.

Photo Credit on all: Carol Rosegg
And primarily because the current Broadway in Chicago presentation at the Cadillac Palace prompted me to explore the rich Rodgers & Hammerstein score--some tunes from which I knew through osmosis, but in full I was delighted to discover--during the first act I was largely accepting of Beane's updates.

(SPOILER ALERT for those wanting to know absolutely nothing.) 

As I was alluding to above, there isn't a previous version of Cinderella I explicitly remember or hold sacred, so--per what I could deduce from Wikipedia about the 76-minute 1957 production--it didn't grievously bother me that the current prince is named Topher nor that his parents, the King & Queen, are dead before the curtain rises.

And given my own perspective about what's wrong with the country and world, I didn't much mind the gibes taken at the monarchy in the name of economic fairness for all, most stridently voiced by a character named Jean-Michel (well played by David Andino), who is something of a Renaissance political activist and social reformer.

That said, even in Act I, the main charms of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella came via things that weren't exactly nouveau.

Songs such as "In My Own Little Corner," "The Prince is Giving a Ball," "Impossible" and "Ten Minutes Ago" are delightful and hold up well within Rodgers & Hammerstein's legendary canon.

As Cinderella, Paige Faure is quite lovely both before and after she is gussied up by her fairy godmother (Kecia Lewis)--and sings her songs well.

And at least from the top of the Cadillac Palace, Andy Jones seems to make for a rather charming Prince, who in this version has been raised by a mean minister named Sebastian (Blake Hammond). 

Thanks to the songs, performances, some fine choreography by Josh Rhodes and several snazzy costumes (and costume changes) by William Ivey Long, this entire Cinderella under the direction of Mark Brokaw is enjoyable and impressive enough in the realm of quality downtown theater entertainment.

Though while well-suited for kids--who were better behaved Tuesday than many nearby adults--and Rodgers & Hammerstein devotees alike, even at its best this production was a shade below being a masterpiece.

But after Cinderella lost her slipper at the Act I--but then (SPOILER ALERT) quickly snagged it back--Act II became far more leaden as Beane's tale of public unrest weaves together with that of the Prince trying to find Cinderella in a way that feels convoluted.

And probably unnecessary.

In and of herself, it's likely no crime to have instilled this Cinderella with a bit more chutzpah to accompany her royal romantic longings than Cinderellas past. But not only has the story--as I've known it--always been a rebuke of people who treat others shabbily or with a complete lack of empathy, as I've discovered with much appreciation in recent years, Rodgers & Hammerstein shows (Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music) include a lot more social stridency within them than people may realize.

So while I have no inherent or political aversion to what Beane, Brokaw and other collaborators tried in modernizing the context of Cinderella, it felt--again, without a specific point of comparison--like it may well be a case subtraction by addition.

Because still in Act II, what really matters is the music.

"Stepsister's Lament" (better known by its "Why would a fella want a girl like her?" refrain) and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" are two more terrific songs that Richard and Oscar wrote for Julie Andrews-starring 1957 broadcast, while "There's Music in You" is one of five Rodgers & Hammerstein songs that were added into the 2013 Broadway staging.

So I'm glad I saw Cinderella and--even with my multiple spoiler alerts--don't think I'm giving too much away to reveal that most everyone in the show winds up living happily ever after.

None of the new touches should ruin the show for Princess-adoring children, or even adults who recall Cinderella fondly from whatever incarnation(s).

And in a way, I find the the attempt at modern contextualizing admirable.

But more than not, it fits like a glass slipper on the wrong foot.

I don't know if what Rodgers & Hammerstein originally created just needed padding timewise to mandate a "sell more souvenirs" Intermission, but I have to imagine I would have been happier without Cinderella going all social crusader.

As much as I applaud the motivation behind it. 

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