Once upon a time, in the magical land of Broadway, an age-old fairy tale was reborn.
It came to life in The Broadway Theatre, where writer Douglas Carter Beane (Broadway’s “Lysistrata Jones” and “Sister Act”) revised the well-known story, modernizing it, though it’s still set in some vaguely European 19th century village.
There’s a little winking at the audience, without tipping into overly whimsical territory. Of course puppets turn into footmen, a fairy godmother flies and it is “Cinderella” — but it’s “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” which means a great score.
The beautiful orphan, Cinderella (Laura Osnes, Broadway’s “Bonnie & Clyde” and “South Pacific”) lives with her evil stepmother and not quite wicked enough stepsisters. There’s the cute, though not dashing, prince with a social conscience.
After slaying a tree giant (think the talking trees in the “Wizard of Oz” but on Miracle-Gro) Prince Topher’s (Santino Fontana, Broadway’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and TV’s “The Good Wife”) first line is: “I just wish I was doing something more important with my life.”
When Cinderella sees him the first time, she asks, “That man is a world leader? He appears to have a heart, mind and soul.”
This approach could easily go over the top. A couple of lines feel forced, but the overall result is refreshing. Why shouldn’t fairy tales have a social conscience?
For any mother, who has ever felt wrong about feeding her daughter tripe that a man on a white horse will gallop into her life so he can take care of her, this is a bit of an antidote.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein score, immortalized by Julie Andrews, remains delightful, and includes “In My Own Little Corner.” Osnes has a very sweet voice, and is everything an updated Cinderella should be: delicate with an almost avian vulnerability. She seems so fragile she might break, but ultimately reveals a stronger core than expected and becomes empowered.
Victoria Clark (Tony winner for “The Light in the Piazza”) is great as Marie, the fairy godmother, and Harriet Harris (best known as Felicia Tillman on “Desperate Housewives” and a Tony winner for “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) is fabulous as the arch stepmother, Madame. She knows how to get a laugh, as does Peter Bartlett (Broadway’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” and TV’s “The Big C”) as Sebastian, the nefarious advisor to the prince.
As good as they all are, William Ivey Long steals this show.
He gets applause, sight unseen. Long has won five Tony Awards for his costumes, and his work for this show produced gasps. Long has perfected the quick change, how-did-that-happen moment. One second Cinderella is in rags, the next she’s swathed in a glorious gown. People always notice costumes, but the last time I recall people bursting into applause for costumes was when drag queens dressed as cupcakes in “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert the Musical.”
The story follows the basic outlines of “Cinderella,” except in this one Sebastian is usurping power from the prince and stealing land from the poor. An uprising is afoot.
The musical manages what theater geared to enchant the young and entertain adults should: there is humor. Stepsisters Charlotte and Gabrielle (Ann Harada, “Smash” and Marla Mindelle, Broadway’s “Sister Act”) have fun moments as Charlotte tries following her mom’s advice and getting the prince to notice her, but Gabrielle only has eyes for the town rabble-rouser.
Gabrielle also asks Cinderella a question that has long plagued many: “How did you dance in glass shoes?”
Yes, Cinderella still marries the prince, but it is the perfect match for the right reasons: They actually like each other. The wedding scene is perfectly staged and her gown, even for those who find the Disney approach saccharine, is a perfect princess confection.
As one of those mothers who always felt guilty reading my little girl fairy tales where the male rescued the damsel in distress, I was thrilled to watch this version with my now adult daughter. And that made for a very happy ending.