First Nighter: The Marcy Heisler-Zina Goldrich Musical 'Ever After' an Unlikely Ever After

First, let me say several laudatory words about Marcy Heisler, who wrote the book and lyrics for Ever After, having its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse, and Zina Goldrich, who wrote the music for the extravagant stage adaptation of the 1998 movie starring Drew Barrymore and Anjelica Houston.

Heisler and Goldrich are a first-rate, top-drawer songwriting team, who've particularly been making contributions to the cabaret community for a couple decades. They've established at least one standard in "Taylor the Latte Boy," as humorous and charming a ditty as has been sent into the atmosphere for the last long while. Their Dear Edwina has become a popular children's musical, and when they find the time, they perform their own polished and irresistible act.

As a fan for some years, I've been plugging for them to supply the score to a spanking big Broadway tuner. They've long had it in them to do, which makes me hugely sorry to report that much as they deserve a long-awaited click, Ever After isn't it -- and for several dismaying reasons.

Since I haven't seen the Ever After screen version -- and am not now inclined to make up for the lapse -- I can't say how faithful Heisler's book is to it. Word does get back from those who have, however, that this treatment follows the original closely enough. If so, Heisler is unluckily late with the Cinderella spin wherein feisty Cinderella stand-in Danielle (Margo Seibert and Isabella Jolene Burke or Giada Blume when young) outwits her cruel stepmother Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent (Christine Ebersole) and stepsisters Marguerite de Ghent (Mara Davi) and Jacqueline de Ghent (Annie Funke) at winning the hand of Prince Henry (James Snyder).

Heisler and Goldrich may have been developing Ever After for some time or maybe not, but either way they've become victims of the enervating Broadway-as-Little-Girl-Land syndrome. Depictions of spunky youngsters have now -- after Wicked, Matilda, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, Gigi and what else? -- grown annoyingly stale.

Making matters worse is the emphasis on the proactive heroine. It's not enough these days for Cinderella to step out of her slipper accidentally. She has to take matters into her own hands and remove the slipper herself or somehow inform the Prince it's hers. Look, this Danielle is a young woman who reads Thomas More's Utopia to pass the time of overworked day.

Furthermore, the Prince isn't simply charming. He's got his own problems. He doesn't know who he wants to be or what he wants to do. In a state of pique he actually insists, "I don't need a ball." (Blasphemy!) By the same boring token, the stepsisters -- when there are stepsisters -- aren't both evil. In Ever After and the R&H on-the-boards Cindy, one sister is actually good.

Compounding the trouble for Heisler is that she hasn't constructed a taut version of the old story. Her treatment, perhaps due to unwisely hewing to the film, is overrun with plot diversions and digressions. Though it's about two and a half hours long, it feels as if it goes on forever. It's no longer the story of a young girl of the cinders who goes to a ball thanks to a fairy godmother. It's the story of a young woman who becomes involved with a prince worried about where he belongs in the world. It's the saga of a young woman kidnapped with her royal swain by a band of thieves who believe she's the queen they've been promised.

There's just no easy unraveling the script's myriad tangles, and perhaps most surprisingly, the score by regularly inspired Goldrich and Heisler lacks consistent inspiration. The cleverest songs are "After All" -- a ballad Ebersole sings in her crystalline way when Rodmilla is in an unusually reflective mood -- and "Is There Anything Leonardo Can't Do?" That one's offered by an expertly drilled chorus about Leonardo da Vinci (Tony Sheldon), who's a crucial character. Both numbers are examples of what Heisler and Goldrich can do at the same level as the best Broadway tunesmith predecessors.

Otherwise, the many songs, as well orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin and including the title tune, remain workmanlike. Their combined craftsmanship is evident throughout, but not much more than that. In particular, the ballads, though often marked by Goldrich's propulsive melodies, don't rise beyond mid-level heights. It's as if Heisler -- usually writing from her cannily sophisticated observations of the world around her and possibly her own checkered romantic experiences -- has set those prompts aside in order to fit songs into a storyline that only intrigued her to a certain degree.

The ordinarily inventive Kathleen Marshall directs and choreographs on a similar earthbound touch, although she does get a chance to goose the proceedings with some of the 16th-century court dances and with the athletic gypsy gang. She also prods the cast to be as peppy as the lines allow.

Seibert is lively enough. Looking properly plain as Adrian in last year's Rocky, she glows here and sings so beautifully -- as does Snyder -- that it's a shame neither she nor he aren't given more stirring pieces to deliver individually or in tandem. Ebersole, who can do no wrong, hasn't got enough to do right, but what she has is choice. Others -- including the wonderful Julie Halston -- toil conscientiously but to only so-so avail.

The most impressive elements about Ever After are the Derek McLane's sets, which are augmented by projections McLane and Olivia Sebesky concocted, and Jess Goldstein's costumes. (Side note: I think I've seen four new McLane sets in the past week. How does he do it?) The sets and costumes deftly recreate the late Renaissance look and presumably at great expense. They impress all the more as lighted by Peter Kaczorowski.

Over the last couple seasons, Newsies and Honeymoon in Vegas traveled to Broadway from the Paper Mill Playhouse. Given the lushly expensive look of this undertaking, the theater's folks have been hoping to make it a triple play. But as things appear now, it doesn't seem as if Ever After is likely to have a Broadway ever after.