"Glass slippers are back!" shouts the sign outside the Broadway Theatre. And so is entertainment. It took Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella 56 years to get to the Great White Way, but if the shoe still fits, flaunt it.
It certainly fits Laura Osnes, who enchanted me as Bonnie Parker in the underappreciated musical Bonnie and Clyde and climbs one step further up the ladder to stardom as the fairy tale ragamuffin heading for the royal throne of a troubled kingdom in this timeless musical treasure. OK, so it's not one of the legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein scores to equal Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Carousel and The King and I. But after this lavish, fun-filled production, I predict it will no longer be considered the exclusive property of Julie Andrews. First seen in a "live" 90-minute CBS-TV special in 1957 when it was applauded by 107 million viewers, it was revived in a lackluster 1965 broadcast with Lesley Ann Warren, and in a popular but (in my opinion) disastrous 1997 version with Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother. For Cinderella's first time on Broadway, her magical vision has been so heavily revised it sometimes barely resembles the original children's classic that inspired it, but the production values are slick and filled with so much wonder and delight that it is guaranteed to thrill kids from 9 to 90.
Purists who fondly remember the original (still available for viewing in its entirety on YouTube) will grouse. Songs deleted from other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows have been added. The king and queen are gone. Other characters have been invented anew. The evil stepmother (Harriet Harris) is now mainly just a kvetch and a social climber, with none of the brittle sass brought to the original concept by the great Ilka Chase. The wicked stepsisters (Marla Mindelle and Ann Harada) are not as wicked (and only a fraction as hilarious) as the original team of Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley, who are sorely missed. One of them has even been turned into a kind-hearted humanitarian, giving away her ball gown to Cinderella and thumbing her nose at the prince, in favor of romance with an awkward revolutionary named Jean-Michel (Greg Hildreth) who says "I would like to take you on a date. I'm organizing a soup kitchen. We need someone to stir -- and ladle." When her mean spirited abusers turn out to be not so bad after all, it robs their eventual redemption and Cinderella's forgiveness of vital poignancy. Chalk up the political activism that would have appalled Rodgers and Hammerstein to the "new" book by Douglas Carter Beane, whose attempt to improve Oscar Hammerstein II with a town crier who yells "I'll be back at eleven with weather and sports" ties up loose ends with contemporary irrelevance but not much originality and wit.
Marvelous Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza) is a triumph as the beggar woman in the woods who turns into the fairy godmother in a dazzling ball gown: "But you're a crazy woman. What are you doing in that beautiful gown?" "You'd be surprised how many beautiful gowns have crazy women in them." (Her musical talisman, the lilting "There's Music In You", is not from the original score, but she stops the show.) Peter Bartlett, a veteran comic with an elastic face and the expression of a hound dog whose face has been stroked the wrong way, gets a few laughs as the court advisor who has been robbing the people blind and doesn't take kindly to the prince's newly awakened political consciousness like free elections. ("One person, one vote? Where's the fun in that?") Santino Fontana as the prince, now called Prince Topher (short for Christopher, get it?), back from college and cluelessly naïve with a self-image problem, is less virile and commanding a presence as a prince should be, but Santino Fontana sings the show's most enduring song, "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful", with power and melodic ease. Cinderella, whose real name is Ella, is the one who teaches him things he never learned in an all boy's school, mainly that the satisfaction derived from slaying dragons has its limitations. In rags or in royal regalia, Laura Osnes is a rapturous Cinderella. Singing Rodgers and Hammerstein should give her enough ideas (and material) for her next cabaret act.
Director Mark Brokaw keeps the traffic moving despite a plethora of pesky peasants saying dubious things like "Hey, this prince is all right!" The choreography by Josh Rhodes is a whirl of waltzes and gavottes enhanced by Anna Louizos production designs as opulent as an MGM Technicolor movie. From the village market with pigs, produce and pastries to the masked ball at the palace, the visual splendor never pales. The trees move, the scenery moves, the chandeliers move. They must have spent days on technical rehearsals. One thing they can't do onstage, of course, is turn the pumpkin into a golden carriage, mice into horses and a stuffed fox and raccoon into footmen. Some things must be reserved for CGI. But when Ella is transformed into a princess in a white ball gown with slippers of Venetian glass and a diamond tiara, it really does happen miraculously, in a puff of fairy dust. The applause is overwhelming.
It's old-fashioned corn, but sometimes it is perfectly OK just to be entertained without guilt. You might fall for Cinderella enough to consider every Broadway cab after the show as a potential pumpkin. One thing is certain. You will go home humming.