Impossible? Not at all: a lush, magical, and (yes) woke Cinderella shines at Drury Lane

Photo by Brett Beiner

The first television version of Rogers’ and Hammerstein’s Cinderella was undoubtedly my first real experience with Broadway musicals. (And my second. And my third. Etc.) Little me wanted desperately to be Lesley Ann Warren and to have a fairy godmother who could solve all of my problems, though I had no experience that could allow me to appreciate Celeste Holm in the role (or, for that matter, Ginger Rogers as the queen). I loved the songs, the cheesy special effects, Warren’s pure innocence, her dress, the ball, the silly/evil stepsisters, and just about everything about it except for the fact that it ended. In those days, I knew I’d have to wait a long time for someone to rebroadcast it.

A lot of Cinderellas have come and gone since then, but there’s something about that first experience that has always made it seem special, even though I long since became jaded enough to recognize the inherent issues with a plot equating being rich with being happy (not to mention the light slavery the title character had to face in her stepmother’s house). Nonetheless, I was happy to (finally) see it done on stage as it was supposed to be when Drury Lane announced it as part of their fall lineup. And I was even happier when I discovered that in fact Oscar Hammerstein II’s hoary book for this musical was replaced for the 2013 revival with one by Douglas Carter Beane that takes a lot of my issues off the table and manages to make the musical even more magical in the process.

Under the direction (and choreography) of Amber Mak, Drury Lane’s Cinderella is absolutely lovely to behold, the epitome of fairy tale musicals even in the age of Beauty and the Beast. But it is something else as well, and I’ll use a word for it that has been unfairly derided by right-wing politicians hoping for electoral payoffs: this play is woke. (I use it here in its intended meaning of an awareness of social inequalities such as racial justice, sexism, and LGBT rights…or, in this case, economic inequality.) Beane’s book replaces a lot of the 1950s “oh my, look at the prince!” claptrap for a much stronger and more realistic—can you even use that word for a story in which a pumpkin becomes a fancy coach?—and modern look at the individual motivations and reactions of the characters.

Cinderella herself (Lissa deGuzman) is just as sweet and just as held down as ever, at least at the beginning. But even in those first scenes, DeGuzman shows us a young woman who is drawn not to a handsome prince but to the greater good. She genuinely cares for the townspeople around her and for at least one of her stepsisters. Christine Mayland Perkins’ Gabrielle is, it turns out, just as sweet, caring, and woke as Cinderella is, and an ally in that house who isn’t a mouse—Disney callout!—makes a lot of difference, as Alanna Lovely’s Charlotte and Gisela Adisa’s Stepmother (known here even to her daughters as “Madame”) are so self-centered that you sort of want to see the old Grimm scene in which their eyes are pecked out…but this isn’t that kind of show. (Go see Into the Woods.) The sisterly relationship between Cinderella and Gabrielle is wonderful, and it just grows stronger throughout the play as the latter reveals a secret desire: she is in love with a local political firebrand named Jean-Michel (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez) and can’t give two hoots about some prince.

That prince, played by Jeffrey Kringer, is not the same character as in Hammerstein’s original book. Here, he is orphaned, his royal parents replaced by a self-serving caretaker named Sebastian (Jeff Parker) who desires to keep things as they have always been, ignoring the Jean-Michel-led calls from the townsfolk for some basic protections and rights. Parker does not play Sebastian as totally evil—in fact, he seems to be having an affair with also-not-totally-evil-but-equally-too-focused-on-class Madame—which is a good thing, since Beane’s script essentially drops that hot potato after the ball. Prince Topher (“Christopher Rupert, etc,” as we learn in a song sung by Ryan Michael Hamman’s Lord Pinkleton) is young and over-protected, but he is quite obviously a Nice Guy (trademark pending) who cares more for others than he does for himself or his fortune. Not the untouchable, too-perfect prince played by Stuart Damon in that TV version, Kringer gives us a young man who is well aware that he has a lot to learn to be a good leader…and desires to learn it.

Of course, this being Cinderella, there is a Fairy Godmother, played by McKinley Carter. At first appearing as a raggedy old “crazy” woman named Marie, she quickly shows us the innate goodness in Cinderella and Topher even before they officially meet. Then, of course, she reveals who she truly is (in the first of costumer Theresa Ham’s many quick-changes, all of which lend even more magic to the proceedings). (There are plenty of youtube videos of quick-changes; if you’ve never seen it done—and even if you have—you’ll be very impressed.) Beane’s book allows a clearer and more meaningful relationship between Cinderella and this magical person, and it is clear that Marie has been watching over her, perhaps for the entire time she’s been under Madame’s thumb. There are also other surprises in this new book—my favorite of which are puppets of a fox and raccoon designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock—but the bottom line is that this is not your grandparents’ Cinderella.

Mak has done a wonderful job bringing all of this to life both in guiding the actors and choreographing dance and movement. The ballroom scenes easily evoke the beauty we expect from such moments, and the taut, comical sequences like “Stepsister’s Lament” (which you might recall for its “Why would a fella want a girl like her?” refrain) are as inventive and fun as the equally wonderful ballads like “Ten Minutes Ago” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful” are utterly swoon-worthy even for this modern girl. It’s as easy to get lost in this music as it was when I was little.

Of course, this being Drury Lane, you can also expect nothing less than the best from the set (Riw Rakkulchon), the lighting (Jose Santiago), the sound design (Ray Nardelli), and every other technical aspect of the show. In fact, the only thing that disappointed me was the half-full auditorium. It was a reasonably nice Saturday night; I’d have hoped for a larger crowd. Maybe at the matinees, which are probably more in line with this play’s younger demographic, but you don’t have to be a child to love this Cinderella. You only need the ability to transport your mind to a more magical time, and Mak and her designers and cast make that easy. If you’ve always loved this play, don’t miss this production. If you think, based on past experience, that it’s a bit jejune for your taste, you’ll probably be surprised. Besides, there is a reason that this is the most popular fairy tale ever (according to several different authorities on the internet) and also has more than 500 adaptations from many different cultures and eras: it is always beautiful, and we love that about it.

Cinderella is now playing at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook, through January 7. Performance times vary; check the Theatre’s website. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com

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