RIVERTON — We here at UTBA have been having quite a few discussions on the role of community theatre. The discussions have been quite intriguing and were still fresh in my mind as I went to go see what might be considered one of the pillars of community theatre: a youth production. The Riverton Youth Theatre’s production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is youth theatre at its finest.
This production, directed by Vicki Wartman, has an amazing atmosphere. The opening night audience consisted mostly of the families and friends of cast members, and there was an excitement in the house. To top it off, the story is one that is well-loved by young audiences, which means there were more than a few who came in their finest princess gowns. It was going to be a fun night, no matter what. The audience wasn’t looking for anything ground-breaking, just something fun and light-hearted. And that’s exactly what this show was.
The make-up of the production crew was encouraging. All of the cast members, and the majority of the crew, were kids between the ages of 5 and 18. As someone who is involved in the arts (particularly in arts education), it was fun to watch as these kids interacted with each other, learned about performing, and had a great experience doing so. It was something that could be seen in the performances. The crowd scenes were especially fun to watch because every single actor, no matter how young, was involved in some sort of stage business and they were committed to it. They knew that even if they weren’t talking at that point, they were still important to the show and did their best. I really love watching that type of theatre.
Similarly, the relationship between the older cast members and the younger ones was enjoyable to see. Again, this was something that could be perceived in the interactions on stage. There were a few moments in particular in which Cinderella (Emma Driggs) was singing to her little chorus of mice, and you could tell that the young actors playing the mice looked up to this high school junior. It’s hard to explain what it was that clued me into this (and it might have been influenced by personal experience in the theatre) but it was just easy to imagine that there were plenty of new friendships formed. In essence, it was the formation of a small community.
Granted, at this point I’ve talked around the performance quite a bit without directly addressing what I thought about the performances themselves. I would say that, overall, it was on par with the majority of high school or community shows. There were some actors that really had a great handle on things and others that were getting there, but still had a little more oomph to give. However, one thing that was clear was that each of the principle actors had taken ownership of their character. Each one found a way to make the character their own and to find the little quirks that helped fit the actor into character itself. Two places that this was quite apparent were in the evil stepsisters as well as the fairy godmother.
The evil stepsisters, played by Ashley and Anthony (yes, Anthony) VanDongen, were so completely distinct in their methods of annoyance. Ashley played a rough-and-tough almost tomboyish stister named Grace, while Anthony played an over-the-top, whiny, get what she wants type of spoiled brat named Joy. Each actor found ways to make their version of the stepsister distinct from the other stepsister in posture, voice, and even the way they picked on poor Cinderella. This was refreshing to see. It was also interesting to see the take that Hannah Bradshaw took on the Fairy Godmother. It was interesting to see her played with what can best be described as sass or attitude. She wasn’t there to bail Cinderella out, but to push her to her potential. Again, it was great to see these actors making choices about their characters.
Cinderella and her Prince Christopher (Emma Driggs and Josh Duke) were also fun to watch. I thought there was some chemistry between the two. One of their best scenes was near the end of the ball where the Prince and Cinderella try to sneak away to be able to talk. There was a natural feeling to the scene that made it feel like a real date (but not the awkward kind). This was essential for the true love bit at the end. If I have one comment about it though, I feel like the Prince could go even farther in his performance. There were a few moments where he really had some good acting choices, but it was almost as if he was nervous about really committing to it. It seemed that just pushing it a little bit farther would have really given a nice command of the stage and some added strength to a good character.
Finally, I think that one of my favorite performances of the even was the Prince’s man Lionel (Kyle A. Lawrence). Lawrence was so natural on stage that he was able to command the audience without having to ham up any of his lines or gestures. He had a natural charisma that drew me in and his comedic timing was great. He was really fun to watch.
On the technical side of things, there were signs of good things, though some frustrating choices were made. The costumes (Jill VanDongen) were beautiful and creative. The little mice costumes were absolutely adorable and clever in their design. And one of the best moments of the night was the change into Cinderella’s evening gown (you’ll have to see it to know the exact details). It was well executed and quite impressive. The set (Mark Halvorsen and Kim Ostler) was gorgeous and there were some clever ideas. The concern that I had was the number of set changes that required massive sets in and out. Sometimes there’s no way to avoid some blackout time, but it’s still hard to keep the audience engaged during the dark times. And finally, the lighting (Mark Halvorsen and Jeff Kay) was fairly standard, mostly just being used to make everything visible, but there were some neat moments that weren’t fully utilized. For example, I love the lighting going into the fairy godmother and Cinderella scene where the back was lit with Christmas lights and a blue wash was used to create a mood. But this only lasted for a brief moment because almost as soon as the lighting was set, it was changed to follow spots for the song. I just wanted a little more time to enjoy the creative ambience that was made.
On the whole, I had a great evening. As was previously said, I think that the best parts of this kind of show are not strictly about the product that we see, but the knowledge of what it took to create it. So yes, I may have had a few qualms about some of the choices that were made, but with youth theater it’s not about making some critic happy; it’s about the community that is formed and the opportunities provided. And that’s actually something that makes me happy as a reviewer. I love seeing that and feeling like I am a part of it, even if I’m not connected to the cast or the production in any way. Besides, it’s hard to not enjoy the evening when a little girl in the audience who is dressed like a princess is waving to her older sister on stage.
*Note* This show is double cast. I saw the “Magical” cast but was unable to review the “Enchanted” cast.