(This article was amended on November 24, 2012 from its original version.)
‘Tis the season when many daddies and mommies want to spoil their little girls, by taking them to that special performance, filling their eyes and ears with enough magical sparkle to feed memories for years to come. Olney Theatre Center has brought back its Cinderella to become just such a fitting family tradition, albeit crafting it with less supernatural magic than good values topped with a big dollop of optimism to ward away all challenges.
The musical of Cinderella was written in 1957 by Rodgers and Hammerstein to create a prime time television special for Julie Andrews. The show has all the earmarks of that period’s values, and it was devised for a true musical star, one who personified purity in character and voice. It doesn’t even try to excavate the darker family psychology imbedded in the original fairy tale but treads ever so lightly on the story’s central theme of an abused girl chafing to escape her unlovely and unloving family.
This presents a bit of a problem for director Bobby Smith, but he has chosen to honor the intentional vanilla confection of the piece and carry it through the entire work visually and musically. Our pretty-as-a-picture heroine doesn’t have a smudge on her face. She cries sparkling tears and dreams in her “own little room” about a prince who might rescue her.
Jessica Lauren Ball’s Cinderella is so wholesome she looks as if she’d just stepped off a farm in Indiana. She charms us with her incandescent smile and guilelessness. Eschewing the pop vocal belt so prevalent in Broadway-style musicals now, Ball gives us instead a consistently beautifully-produced sound that harkens back to a musical era when “legit singing” was prized. When Cinderella steps on stage in her ball gown, featuring a turquoise balloon skirt with sparkles cropped mid-calf, she looks like she might be heading for a fifties’ prom night.
It’s a charming production, but it doesn’t totally solve the problem of the book, and can’t lift off from merely being sweetly entertaining. There’s no truly evil villain or conflict to drive the story. The king and queen, played with a cozy domesticity by Carole Graham Lehan and Dan Manning, seem to have recently downsized their royal quarters and simply want the best for their son. Their reasonableness, however, doesn’t create sparks in the premise of why put together this cockamamie idea of a princess-questing ball in the first place. Moreover, Cinderella’s stepmother and sisters, played delightfully by Donna Migliaccio as mére and Tracy Lynn Olivera and Jamie Kelton (last seen here as Sally in You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown) as les jeune filles, end up more silly than evil and, so clumsy in their scheming, that while the performers are highly entertaining as clowns they hardly pose a formidable obstacle in the plotline.
Even Terry Burrell [as Fairy Godmother] and Kevin S. McAllister [as royal steward Lional], can’t quite pull off the forward movement of the drama. There was one moment when Burrell sends Cinderella off to the ball. Her voice cracks as she says, “You are as beautiful as your mother ever was,” revealing that this indeed may be her mother-protector spirit. It was a lovely moment, and I so wished for more of such.
But Olney has the demographics and the appetite for just such sweetness. To truly understand that one must stand in the lobby of Olney Theatre Center. Not only is there a giant pumpkin coach, sitting plump in the center of the space, but it looks so fetching that it requires signs to keep the young princesses, all attired as if they too are going to a ball, from climbing in. Plenty have their pictures taken in front of this orange edifice. And it’s not just the 7-12 year old girls who have dressed up in princess dream outfits. There were several Olney patrons who might legitimately be called adults who had donned tiarras, waiting hopefully, one assumes, for a dance wth the prince.
The pre-show buzz in the lobby is just as much part of the entertainment as the musical itself. People stand in line for magic wands and tiaras or sugary confections. Armed with crackerjacks and candy in wrappers, young and old descend to the theatre to munch and rattle their way through the two hours’ entertainment. (Theatre rules, such as “open your candy wrappers before the show,” have been jettisoned to entice yet another generation of theatre goers to buy into the magic of theatre.)
Inside the theatre, the proscenium arch has been decorated with wooden cut out scrolling like a richly illumined manuscript. Designer James Fouchard keeps the set pieces to an absolute minimum to keep the story telling aspect to the fore. When the ensemble enters for the first number, Pei Lee’s vibrantly colored costumes reinforce the delightful storybook nature of the production.
Everyone in the cast has had great fun creating this work, it seems, and that fun is infectious. Migliaccio commands the stage in Lee’s over the top costume for her character. In her long, scalloped black skirt and her plum then peacock silk jackets, and with her turban and tight black spit curls framing her angular face, she looks like a deliciously poisonous Cruella Deville. The actress has a wicked sense of comic timing, and it comes to the fore especially with her frustration over her two embarrassingly anti-social daughters. Then, suddenly, she exhibits the same inexcusable behavior, as in “a family that snorts together…”
Olivera and Kelton as the wicked stepsisters are equally engaging. The casting was terrific pairing these actresses up, as physically Olivera dwarfs her diminutive sister, and the business these two had developed in rehearsal consistently brought screaming laughter from the audience.
From the first number, I couldn’t quite believe the imagination that went into their outrageous outfits. How to describe the full picture? – polka dots stockings over black Mary Jane shoes, black design on white poufy organza skirts, shocking pink-and-green plaid silk bodices, topped with their carrot-colored hairdos and silly pill-box hats. Olivera as Grace bounced like a giant balloon in her outfit on and off the sofa, the floor, and her sister, while Kelton, as Joy, struggled, hilariously at times, with basic concepts of comprehensions and motor skills. I might have to return just to listen to Olivera’s studiously orated poem to the prince – in pig latin and watch soon thereafter the sisters’ moving potted plant routine as they eavesdrop in the garden the prince courting Cinderella.
Set to close December 30, 2012
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $26 – $54
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Director Smith is himself a fine performer of uncommon abilities, what in the biz is called a triple threat – he sings, acts and dances. While he directed the performers in delightful comic invention, it felt odd that the dancing in the show fell a little flat. Choreographer Ilona Kessell seemed not to have had enough time to invent a way for the dance numbers not to feel boxed in the set.
One other quibble is with the puppets. I’m dopey-crazy for puppets, but these mice looked more like large rats, so that I understood perfectly Migliaccio’s piercing scream, while the feline resembled not so much a cat as some feral thing in transition.
Tut tut. One of the lines Cinderella learns from her prince is, “Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.” If this is what the little girls in the audience are meant to take away, then we should do the same. There is plenty to respect in this production and much that offers delight.
Cinderella . Music by Richard Rodgers . Original book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Adapted for the stage by Tom Briggs from the teleplay by Robert L. Freedman . Directed by Bobby Smith. Choreographed by Ilona Kissell. Featuring Jessica Lauren Ball as Cinderella, Terry Burrell as the Fairy Godmother. Matthew John Kacergis as Prince Christopher. Carole Graham Lehan as the Queen and Dan Manning as the King. Donna Miglaccio as Cinderella’s Stepmother. Cinderella’s Stepsisters: Jaimie Kelton (Joy) and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Grace). With Kevin McAllister, Austin VanDyke Colby, Parker Drown, Maria Egler, Willow Grey, Gracie Jones, Nick Lehan, Mary Payne and Chris Sizemore. Costume design: Pei Lee. Produced by Olney Theatre Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
The cast talks about Cinderella.