Luscious sets and transforming costumes evoke a magical pop-up storybook in the touring version of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella at the Civic Theatre. Poof, the peasant girl gets her gown. A pumpkin becomes a golden carriage. A fairy godmother hovers over head. The production is the best of its kind when it comes to visual splendor and enchants with lovely voices. A modern twist and terrific cast draw you into a new fairytale setting. Even if you’re not a romantic or hoping to find your inner princess, you’ll get a kick out of the zingers and parodies.
Douglas Carter Bean wrote the book. He takes the basics of Perrault’s fable from 1697 and the best of Rogers + Hammerstein’s TV version with Julie Andrews from 1957, and peppers it with snarky dialogue and slang. Seems he takes cues from the fable-lampooning film “The Princess Bride” and Monte Python skits.
Prince Topher (short for Christopher and a dozen more names) fights a dragon but isn’t fulfilled. He worries and sings “Me, Who am I.” Andy Huntington Jones gives the prince a dippy college boy identity. He’s the guy who can’t find his keys to the castle. His meddling servant lord-chancellor Sebastian calls out, “You there, impoverished person.” A cunning Branch Woodman is annoyed by everyone in his path and coaches the Prince to “just fake it.”
Audrey Cardwell plays Ella the heroine with insidious sweetness. She is kind to everyone and everything. Woodland creatures, bullies, even her stepmother. Still, she’s no victim and wants access to the prince so she can stop him from stealing land from the poor. Her speaking cadence is remarkably similar to a young Judy Garland, and her singing voice is pleasing even in high registers.
One of the best rewards of this production is the chemistry between Jones and Cardwell. Their duets are powerfully romantic yet innocent, and seeing them as two lonely people translates to modern viewers. One could imagine them hoping to find each other through an online dating service. It was meant to be.
As the snobby evil stepmother, Jennifer Evans is a ringer for the class obsessed Blanche Devereux from the TV show “Golden Girls.” In this Cinderella, only one stepsister bullies Ella. Charlotte, a whining plus sized woman played by Aymee Garcia dons the widest and curliest wig ever.The kind stepsister Gabrielle played by Kaitlyn Davidson operates as a double-agent to support Ella. She also falls for the political activist Jean-Michael, who heckles the Prince. Blakely Slaybaugh played him well on opening night. Some of the political subplot drags, but only for a blink.
Kecia Lewis plays the clothes swapping pumpkin switching godmother, and her powerful voice could break a glass slipper. William Ivey Long’s costumes are eye-popping stars that transform, and there are rainbows of flowing gowns in dance sequences. We’re not sure why the godmother has devilish horns growing out of her head though.
Director Mark Brokaw’s sleek direction keeps everything tight. Josh Rhodes’ choreography includes exquisite courtly dances with supple arcs and lively partnering – and high lifts rarely seen in musicals. Some of the songs are familiar, such as “In My Own Little Corner,” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” and “Ten Minutes Ago,” and there are some new ones. Orchestrations shimmer, led by Jay Alger, and the orchestra includes 11 San Diego musicians. It’s all illuminated by Kenneth Posner’s lighting design. Without exception, this production looks and sounds beautiful. We can thank Nevin Steinberg for the sound design, perfection that tickles the ears, even in the confines of the Civic Theatre.
Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella continues through Sunday at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave. Downtown. www.broadwaysd.com 619.570.1100.