Despite strong lead, Cinderella lacks TUTS' usual musical magic

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      Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics and original book by Oscar Hammerstein II. New book by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Theatre Under the Stars production. At Malkin Bowl on Tuesday, July 10. Continues until August 18

      With summer in full swing, many families and theatre fans will plan to visit Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park for Theatre Under the Stars’ annual Broadway musical offerings.

      But this year, audiences who enjoyed the magical charm of previous fairy-tale-inspired shows such as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins will be disappointed with this year’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. It lacks magic and appeal, and is instead a weird concoction of strange costumes, set pieces, and directorial choices.

      The show is an interpretation of the 2013 Broadway version, which features a book by Douglas Carter Beane that revisits the story from a fresh perspective. This includes giving the lead character of Ella more independence and consciousness in her actions, and incorporates themes of classism and the emergence of democracy in France.

      While the revised story line makes for interesting twists and presents Ella as a positive role model for girls, TUTS’ presentation is quite odd. First, there’s the costuming, designed by Christina Sinosich. From the show’s references to the French Revolution and the emergence of democracy, one could infer it's set somewhere in France during the early 19th century. Yet the costumes are all over the map, appearing to recycle random looks from previous shows.

      During the ball scene, Prince Topher (this version’s Prince Charming) wears an apparently African-inspired outfit, and then later changes into what looks like a costume piece from The King and I. His “soldiers” wear futuristic-looking black pleather costumes that look more appropriate for a jazz-dance competition than fighting giants in the woods.

      The female peasants wear 1950s sundresses (Hairspray leftovers?), and the Fairy Godmother’s beggar-woman disguise consists of a stylish tan trench coat over a clean-looking dark hooded dress, making her look like a fashionable businesswoman wearing a trench coat over her Halloween costume.

      Set designer Brian Ball’s concept also lacks consistency or reason. With its pyramidlike steps and fluorescent backdrop pieces, the palace throne room looks like it was recycled from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Meanwhile, Ella’s cottage in the woods lacks fairy-tale mystique, and instead looks like a life-sized bird house.

      It’s a shame that the production values of this show don’t match the beautiful performance of Mallory James, who plays Ella. A talented storyteller, she’s pleasantly engaging when performing her songs, starting with “In My Own Little Corner”, in which she takes audiences on the mini-journeys of her character’s daydreams. James has an intelligence and likability that make you cheer for her as she navigates her way from sweeping floors to wearing glass slippers.

      Also lovely are the pair of Vanessa Merenda as Ella’s not-so-evil stepsister Gabrielle, and her French revolutionary boyfriend, Jean-Michel, played by Daniel Curalli. Merenda and Curalli’s on-stage chemistry is enchanting, which is much appreciated, seeing how there’s a lack of chemistry between James and Tré Cotten, who plays Topher. As for Cotten, he adds American Idol-like runs and riffs to his vocals that seem out of place in the context of the show and juxtaposed with the singing styles of everyone else.

      Overall, this production, under the direction of Sarah Rodgers, comes off as unpolished and poorly thought out. In one scene in the town square, as Lord Pinkleton announces the upcoming ball, the peasants, wearing their flowery sundresses and holding random baking trays and pots, look like they’re heading to a church potluck instead of going about their daily grunge work.

      Even Nicol Spinola’s choreography, which includes a clever interpretation of Ella’s journey to the ball, and the elegant “Ten Minutes Ago”, featuring some lovely ensemble dancers, including the excellent pair of Sophia Curalli and Joshua Lalisan, isn’t enough to pull this production together.

      One could only hope for a real fairy godmother to wave her wand and save this show.