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THEATRE REVIEW

Winning performances, production keep 'Cinderella' fresh at Columbia’s Town Theatre

Familiar Tale

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"Cinderella' runs through Aug. 1 at Town Theatre. Provided

The magical tale of Cinderella and her slipper has been retold countless times. The versions range from the one by 17th century French author Charles Perrault to Walt Disney’s animated classic from 1950.

Jerry Lewis reversed genders for 1960’s “Cinderfella,” Stephen Sondheim used the character as a metaphor for post-marriage blues in 1987’s “Into the Woods,” and the plot has provided material for 21st century reimaginings featuring Disney pop stars such as Hillary Duff and Selena Gomez.

The story surely represents the ultimate in wish fulfillment, wherein a mistreated girl stays true to her core values, and is rewarded by marriage to a handsome prince. Promotional material for the new production running at Town Theatre, however, promises that “this isn’t your mother’s Cinderella.”

While the story has been updated to reflect 21st century themes of empowerment and social justice, a more accurate description might be that this isn’t Disney’s “Cinderella.” There are no mice singing “Cinder-elly,” no soulful rendition of "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," and no “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.”

This is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” written for television in 1957 as a vehicle for Julie Andrews and subsequently remade in 1967 with Lesley-Anne Warren and in 1997 with pop singer Brandy in the lead.

The venerable and instantly hummable score now features a significantly rewritten book from Douglas Carter Beane. It’s still G-rated, but updates include a more sympathetic take on the stepsisters, a Prince “Topher” (shortened from the original “Christopher”) whose attraction to “Ella” (similarly abbreviated) starts earlier and is more believable, a heroine who takes command of her own destiny, and a revolutionary firebrand (Thomas Sowell) who champions the common folk, the background characters whose plight is often overlooked in fairy-tale accounts of wish fulfillment.

At a recent matinee, Town newcomer Maya Fanning was a radiant Ella, seizing lots of opportunities to show off her rich singing voice. As Topher, Zachary Linick was her vocal equal, hitting some impressively high tenor notes, and his characterization was surprisingly complex, as he created a prince just coming into his own as a future ruler.

Marybeth Berry was downright mean as the evil stepmother, but she couldn’t disguise the beauty of her voice in a lively, harmony-filled quartet with Fanning and Ella’s stepsisters, played by Shelby Sessler and Erin Niland. Beane’s revised script depicted the sisters as neither evil nor ugly, but just misunderstood. Sessler, who captivated audiences at Town a decade ago in starring roles for “The 39 Steps” and “Miss Saigon,” made a welcome return to the Columbia stage and nearly stole the show with her comic delivery of “Stepsister’s Lament,” as she made the case for mean girls, selfish girls and full-figured girls needing love too. 

Musical director Amanda Hines ensured a uniformly rich sound throughout, especially in moments focusing on smaller subsets of performers from within the large ensemble.

Clayton King was quite credible as a competent if Machiavellian modern politician. Leah McNeely Tudor sang beautifully as the Fairy Godmother — she alternates in the role with Christy Shealy Mills — but her most significant accomplishment was maintaining her regal composure and perfect pitch while flying 20 feet above the stage, thanks to some stage magic from scenic and lighting designer Danny Harrington.

While neither the story nor score were from Disney, Harrington’s set channeled the look of everyone’s favorite magic kingdom, a visual anchor for the youngest of audience members. Billy Bishop’s costumes got several rounds of applause as rags transformed into elegant gowns before the audience’s eyes.

Tracy Steele’s choreography kept the cast in near-constant motion, not always dancing so much as performing tightly synchronized movements that still seemed natural. A highlight for me was a hilarious chase scene, with Steele and director Jamie Carr Harrington channeling the wacky, frenetic style of similar scenes from The Beatles’ film “Help!”

Prior to the performance, an older patron asked me hesitantly if this was a children’s show. I assured her that these were gifted adult performers singing the music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the guys who did “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music,” and who won Pulitzers for “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific.”

This was still a fairy tale about Cinderella. And, having seen the performance, I can now confirm that even with the updated themes, it was still another version of a familiar children’s story, albeit with strong production values. At two hours plus intermission, the story might better be told in half the time, especially for grownups in attendance who might not be super-fans of the genre.

But choreographer Steele and director Harrington enlivened the classic material with creative staging, and Fanning and Linick were a delight to see whenever they were together on stage.


“Cinderella”

Through Aug. 1. $15-$25. towntheatre.com.

Post and Courier Columbia/Free Times arts coverage is supported by a grant from the Knight Foundation Fund at Central Carolina Community Foundation.

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