SMITHFIELD — There are hundreds of variations of the Cinderella tale. The origins of the story date back to the ninth century, and people return to it over and over. Disney built an empire on Cinderella, with at least seven Cinderella movies in their vaults, including the 1997 version with Brandy and Whitney Houston. I watched that version growing up and thought I knew the story and songs inside and out when I went to see the Four Seasons Theatre Company’s production. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this version has given a fresh spin and updated the story while keeping all the songs that we know and love.
This version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella still has music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, but with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane replacing the original book by Hammerstein. The musical keeps all the original songs from the 1957 version, but adds other songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue. I appreciate that the new book by Beane tries to give some depth and social relevance to Ella and Prince Topher. The superficial romantic characters now have motivations to help build a better, more democratic, society. The Prince, and other characters, don’t seem so ridiculous to not recognize Ella after the ball because she keeps a mask on as they dance. And Ella isn’t a victim scrubbing floors and doing chores until a man just appears. Like the reinvented cartoon fairy tale heroines of the past several decades, this Cinderella is no passive damsel. She actively determines her destiny, so much so that she doesn’t lose that glass slipper; she hands it to the prince. It is a conscious choice to control her narrative.
Given the updates to the script, director Kody Rash does a wonderful job staging the play in a classical manner. Ella is played beautifully by Emma Duffin and shines brightest during her duets “Impossible” and “Ten Minutes Ago,” where she demonstrates remarkable connection and harmonizes expertly with her partners. Nathan Bohman plays the handsome Prince Topher with a sonorous tenor that blends beautifully with Duffin and a dulcet falsetto at the end of “Loneliness of Evening.”
The supporting cast is just as strong vocally. Ella still has a mean stepmother, Madame, played by Sarah McKenna. One of Cinderella’s stepsisters, Gabrielle (played by Taylor Mickelson) far from being ugly or mean-spirited, is good-hearted, and in love with a new character, the town rabble-rouser named Jean-Michel (played by Dallin Clark), who just wants to speak truth to power. Mickelson plays her stepsister as sweet and almost nerdy in an endearing way.
The other stepsister is called Charlotte (played by Lotti Sidwell) and is quirky and funny as she sings the classic “Stepsister’s Lament” with the Ladies of the Court. Sarah Huff started out as a peasant named “Crazy” Marie and made a beautiful transformation into the Fairy Godmother. Huff really sells the crazy pauper, which makes her contrast all the more impressive. Another new character is Sebastian (played by Kyle Cottam), who replaces the Prince’s mother and father, who are dead in this version. Their absence lets Sebastian, acting as Lord Protector, manipulate the Prince and make a good villain. Cottam has good comedic timing and makes his character funny and manipulative, but not loathsome, as he seeks to keep the rich rich and the poor poor.
The acting in this production is strong, with great vocals and good comedic timing, but the technical elements and spectacle are equally impressive. Choreographers Annalyse Chidester, Melisa Jensen, and Katie Packard made the movements simple and clean so that the focus could be more on the vocals.
The only technical element that was disappointing was the presence, every few minutes, of three beeps from a piece of electronic equipment. Perhaps this was a low batter alert or an inconsiderate patron bringing a malfunctioning electronic into the theater. Whatever the cause, this distraction was very unfortunate and continued most of the performance. Other than the beeping, the sound was well balanced between the performers and the music.
The set design and construction by Daniel Rash and Nathan Allen beautifully sets the scene with large wagon pieces for Madame’s Cottage and the Palace steps. My daughter audibly gasped when Ella’s golden carriage and four white horses came onto the stage. The stylized horses are breathtaking and make Ella’s reprise “Possible,” as she rides to the ball a picturesque moment.
Of course, the most iconic element of any Cinderella story is the dress. The costumes are designed by director Kody Rash and are created by the industrious hands of Mary Savage and Kim Rash. The look of the costumes is cohesive and give a fairytale mid-to-late 1800s French court feel. The showstoppers are the dresses for Ella and Marie that transform rags to ball gowns not once, not twice, but three times, almost like magic.
The new script of Cinderella certainly makes some big changes to the story, some more successful than others, as it tries to give more substance to the tale. But no one goes to Cinderella because of political views and ideology. The audience wants magic, and Four Season’s Cinderella delivers on that. The production is full of whimsy with strong vocals and enchanting costumes. I recommend this production for all theatre patrons, but perhaps it is a particularly winning choice for young ladies, and the young at heart, who love a good fairy tale.