HERRIMAN — The story of Cinderella has more than 500 known variants, according to the American Library Association. It is a tale that has been told to children for over a thousand years, and is woven into the very fabric of modern storytelling and society. So, producing a stage version Cinderella is simultaneously challenging to make new and fresh and simple to make relatable and engaging. On Friday, I saw Herriman Art’s Council’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s Cinderella and was so enamored with nearly every detail that it joined the highest ranks of my pantheon of Cinderella performances — and I adore the Cinderella story.
The performance venue is a lovely shaded open air pavilion near the mountains, which gives a stunning setting to witness a play in. It was immediately apparent that the technical elements of the production had not been ignored, as there was a handsome and practical castle and town backdrop, along with a noticeable fly system that was put to excellent use in the production. The fly system was able to bring Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother (plaed by Amber Lee Roberts) on and off stage, as well as transport Cinderella (played by Alyssa Buckner) in her transformed carriage soaring through the sky.
The ensemble truly was a magnificent strength in a show that can often feel so driven by leads. The program lists forty people in the ensemble, but the stage never felt cluttered. Each person on stage had business, varied interactions with the story’s characters and events and was as impressive a large cast as I have ever seen on any stage. In particular, the show’s first several songs have nearly every cast member on stage, but the staging of those numbers felt like watching a living portrait with each person invested in something personally relevant. Similarly, the transition of the Prince trying shoes on to each of the different young women in the kingdom was full of nuanced reactions that indicated a clear vision of what the audience would see. It was a powerful demonstration of a skilled director working with an ensemble and helping a cast of fifty move like a cast of one, and director Kristin Housely deserves ample praise for her detailed work.
I enjoyed sitting near children who were truly agog at the flying, found laughter in small moments from an expertly coordinated and directed ensemble, and when Prince Christopher (played by Geoff Beckstead) asked the protagonist her name whispered over and over, “It’s Cinderella!” As a theatre for young audiences advocate and practitioner, I wish the Herriman Arts Council had seen the magic this would bring; instead of a pre-show announcement asking parents to remove children who were loud, an invitation to audience members to enjoy the sounds of children enjoying this timeless classic would have enhanced the evening. Instead, the night was full of parents shushing children.
I was also largely very impressed with the acting by Cinderella’s leads. I often see musicals where the priority of the show usually seems to be singing, followed by production elements, dance and acting if the director gets around to it. Such shows look nice, but feel emotionally dead. Herriman’s Cinderella was full of lively acting from ensemble and leads alike, and filled me with hope that acting will more often be prioritized in musicals. In particular, Roberts’s performance was spectacular as the Fairy Godmother. Her subtle shift in tone as she spoke about Cinderella’s mother clued the audience into her own secret role without direct admission. Roberts was as playful and distinct in her choices on stage as any Fairy Godmother on stage or screen, and her stellar acting matched her celestial voice.
Buckner’s Cinderella was as sweet and hopeful a portrayal as anyone might hope from the titular character. Her smile and optimism were infectious to the cast and me in numbers like “In My Own Little Corner,” and she had strong on stage chemistry with Beckstead’s Prince Christopher. At times, however, Buckner was unable to find emotional range beyond the archetypal goodness, and I would have loved to see more thoughtfulness to moments of anguish, confusion, and apprehension that the text supports Cinderella having. That is a nit to pick in an otherwise strong performance as she sang and danced beautifully.
In many ways, the most engaging characters to watch were Cinderella’s step-family, as well as Prince Christopher’s steward Lionel (played by Brent Rindlesbacher). In Rindlesbacher’s portrayal, Lionel was an excellent foil to the dreamy prince and the handsy and hilarious stepmother (played by Audrey Jones). He established his presence strongly as an authority figure to the ensemble, and also submitted meekly to the king and queen in the discussion about how to conduct the ball. Jones and Rindlesbacher were a constant delight to watch and listen to with their crisp diction and dedicated characters. Jones managed to shift gears from cruel to coquettish seamlessly with cunning as the progression for her character in the script (originally by Oscar Hammerstein and revised by Douglas Carter Beane). The moments the stepmother berated Cinderella were truly hurtful to watch, but were forgotten in an instant as she simpered farcically for Lionel.
Stage management is the art of going unnoticed and while doing a spectacular thing, and Kelsey Hoskins did just that. The sound never flickered, which was impressive for any production, but only on reflection did I appreciate what a monumental task that is for an outdoor community production. The lights were fluid and were particularly important in numbers like “Ten Minutes Ago,” which were a romantic azure right up to the moment Cinderella ran away. I do wish someone had thought to either not have Cinderella spun quite so high during that dance, or that she’d been provided with crinolines for her costume but, again, these are small complaints in a show with a strong live orchestra, creative and engaging acting, and a true feeling of community in the ensemble.
The story of Cinderella timelessly asks, “How quickly can you fall in love?” In the case of Herriman Art Council’s Cinderella, it truly takes no time at all. The production was so enjoyable, and I plan to take my family to see it again.