This 'Cinderella' retains the familiar while adding refreshingly modern twists

CLEVELAND -- The prince is giving a ball.

Well, what else is new in "Cinderella," that favorite fairy tale that's existed since 1634, according to information provided by PkayhouseSquare.

Plenty else is new -- well, relatively speaking --- with the rags-to-riches story about the poor servant girl who, with the help of a Fairy Godmother, transforms into a gorgeous young lady and gets to go to the ball.

Relatively is an appropriate word, because a new book of the musical, under the title "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella" is 2-years-old and was Tony-nominated for Best Book of a Musical in 2013 on the Great White Way.

Judging from Sunday night's performance, it's taking Cleveland audiences under its spell through Sunday at PlayhouseSquare's Connor Palace as the last show in PlayhouseSquare's KeyBank Broadway series.

See, no worries -- the same lush, memorable melodies of Richard Rodgers remain as do Oscar Hammerstein's simple, heartfelt lyrics we've come to love. New songs are serviceable in fleshing out character but not exactly memorable.

Also retained are the pumpkin, carriage, dashing prince, slippers and all we've come to love about the tale that still ends happily ever after. And, of course, there's eye candy galore with spectacular visuals that alone make this show worth seeing.

There's also no reason to fret because this production is touring the United States and will soon play a venue in Pittsburgh, a nice, not-too-long drive in this season of nice weather.

While this is a faithful musical version of the beloved 1957 television version starring Julie Andrews, playwright Douglas Carter Beane has fleshed out the story. He's created a "Cinderella" for all ages.

Beane has modernized the story in a political fashion that, in the wrong hands, could've come across as too preachy. But thanks to Beane's dry wit, we never feel a preacher is sermonizing.

As mentioned above, the prince, like in the version to which we're all accustomed, is giving a ball, but not just to find a bride. It's a tactic to divert attention from Jean-Michel, a revolutionary who insists Prince Topher and his ruling body is mistreating the kingdom's poor...and intends to do something about it. In deft dramatic counterpoint, he sings "Now is the Time" against others singing "The Prince is Giving a Ball," pitting desired change against those content with the status quo.

Jean-Michel, Cinderella and, in another twist, one of the girl's stepsisters team up to fight for the rights of those in need.

There's a sort of "girl power" mentality (where have we seen THAT before in musical theater?) that might have been drawing in audiences who've made a certain show about a green-hued girl a phenomenon.

Ironically, Beane has gone back to a 1697 French version of the show by Charles Perrault to modernize our beloved tale for today's audiences.

There's plenty of hate between stepsister Charlotte and Cinderella, but not so between our heroine and stepsister Gabrielle. She befriends Cinderella because each can help the other in what they feel will be a win-win scenario.

Some may say Beane is injecting his progressive, feminist views into his book. He's said otherwise.

Regardless, all is forgiven, partly due to the wit he's infused. When someone mentions that Topher is fair-minded ruler, another character balks. Is there such a thing???

At another point, Lord Chancellor Sebastian suggests everybody present at one of the balls Cinderella attends (she attends two in this version) play a game of "Ridicule." After it's suggested that those present instead show kindness, Sebastian tone of voice suggests the word may as well be alien speak.

The above is just some of the humor sprinkled throughout.

A wonderful cast nails comic timing, sings expressively and acts convincingly.

Paige Faure's sweet-natured, life-loving Cinderella is instantly endearing. In Faure's hands, the character can be modest but also commanding, especially when Faure wraps her strong but expressive voice around Hammerstein's heartfelt lyrics.

Faure's Cinderella has wonderful chemistry with Topher, played at first by Andy Huntington Jones as a Pippin-like figure uncertain of his place in the world despite his status as prince. Jones also gives Topher a doggedly determined demeanor and has great range singing wise.

Branch Woodman's Sebastian is a disarmingly charming leader who, you sense, can hide even the most hideous traits of one of his men. When something that could prove hurtful comes up, he's as quick as the costume and magical transformations in this production to cut in with a smile and a diversionary, charming remark.

The seamless, magical costume changes are cheetah-like fast, and wowed the audience with whom I saw the show. They're carried out, in part, by the Fairy Godmother, who herself transforms miraculously from a beggar woman into an enchanting, wise and empowering Fairy Godmother, both played with flair by Kecia Lewis.

Will Blum appears too cartoonish at first as the reform-minded Jean-Michel, but it's not long before he's virtuous, loving, determined and caring..

He and Cinderella's compassionate nature are contrasted nicely by Beth Glover's Madame, mother to Cinderella's stepsisters. Glover plays her as vain but not exactly tyrannical.

In addition to Beane's delicious wit, the comedy stems from Aymee Garcia's portrayal of stepsister Charlotte, who makes her a laughable, spiteful, uncouth villain (think Roseanne Barr).

Director Mark Brokaw gives equal weight to the comic and tender in this production, which also features creative, vivacious choreography by Josh Rhodes and a live orchestra that never drowns out the actors, playing like a well-oiled machine.

And those costumes! William Ivey Long's outfits are big, heavy and gorgeous but never impede a performer's movement.

Anna Louizos' enchanting set design features, among other things, a tree-filled forest. The set moves and alters seamlessly and is complemented by lighting designer Kenneth Posner's work, which creates focus and non-realistic atmospheres befitting a fairy tale.

At the beginning of the production, we're reminded, of course, to turn off all cell phones, etc. But we're also told to set aside our worries and concerns, sit back, relax and enjoy.

Beane's book allows us to do that, while also provoking thought and perhaps action.

This new version gives the song "Impossible" added significance. Just think: "Impossible things are happening every day" are some of the lyrics.
Doesn't that instill you with hope for a better future?

Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him at akrause@norwalkreflector.com

IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Cinderella"
WHEN: Through Sunday.
WHERE: PlayhouseSquare's Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Ave.. Cleveland. Call 216-771-4444. for ticket prices and tickets. For information about the Pittsburgh production and the rest of the tour, visit http://cinderellaonbroadway.com/tour/