The opening night audience of The Barn Theatre’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella was alive with children and their parents as well as those of us always eager to see the latest show. Little girls wearing sparkly gowns with sashes and tiaras, young boys echoing dialogue from the stage that tickled them, and moms snapping family selfies were part of the charm and magic of the evening.
For it’s impossible not to get swept up in the magic of Cinderella, one of the most beloved fairy tales the world over, with roots in nearly every culture on the planet, made visually and musically memorable by many television and film adaptations. We are transformed as the original transformation tale unfolds, no matter how many times we’ve encountered it. Our memories of being told this story as a child make watching it come alive through live theater for children today as magical for us as it is for them.
And who among us couldn’t use a little extra magic right now?
The 2013 Broadway adaptation of the 1957 television musical starring Julie Andrews with a revised book by Douglas Carter Beane tweaks the story a bit, keeping the idea that love conquers all but shifting the focus from a primarily romantic rags-to-riches damsel in distress tale to something that looks more like justice for all—adding a few characters and songs along with some surprising humor to aid in that revision.
Instead of the prince saving poor little downtrodden Cinderella, in this rendition together they save the kingdom from corruption and along the way discover who they are and come to believe in themselves.
It’s not too far of a stretch from the original, and at The Barn, directed by Brendan Ragotzy, it’s truly magical and also allows more space for really wonderful supporting characters to take center stage.
The chief magic maker is Shinnerrie Jackson as Marie who shows (Cinder)Ella “It’s Possible” and “There’s Music In You” in two of the most powerful numbers of the show. In many ways it’s her relationship with Ella that transforms the girl, literally and figuratively. With Jackson’s sparkly, warm presence and big, gorgeous voice along with the assistance of fantastic colorful lighting design by Sammy Verdino, Steven Lee Burright’s malleable and at times miraculous set pieces, and gorgeous, often glittery costumes by Karsen Green, astonishing transformations happen right before our eyes: from rags to ballgown, pumpkin to stagecoach, mice to white stallions. It’s marvelous to behold, but without the initial spark incited by Jackson, none of it would be believable.
But believe we do, moment to moment, as characters build and the storytelling leaps from realistic to cartoonish to tragic to classical musical theater back to comedy and terrific spectacle—with excellent performances and design elements.
Particularly outstanding performances include Penelope Alex’s wicked Madame, who throws shade better than anyone; Lizzy Maguire’s pitch-perfect Charlotte, the more self-centered, cutthroat step sister, whose “Stepsisters Lament” is a powerhouse number, fantastically funny and crowd-pleasing; John Jay Espino’s Sebastian, Prince Topher’s sinister right-hand man, who borrows from television evangelists with his hysterical vocal rhythms; Patrick Hunter’s Lord Pinkleton is a scream, using little more than a wretchedly-played trumpet and his cartoonish face to elicit belly laughs.
The way all of them transform these cartoonish archetypes into real people is as much a part of this show’s magic as the way the technical elements transform one thing into another right before our eyes and woodland creatures spring to life as friend and audience to Ella.
All of this miraculous wonder going on might make it challenging for Ella and the prince to fully shine, but shine they do. Emily Ling Mei is an earnest and exceptionally sweet Ella, quietly taking charge of her narrative by believing in herself as well as justice against all odds—and intentionally leaving her glass slipper so the prince may find her rather than mindlessly losing it as in the original tale. At times her singing is overshadowed by Musical Director Matt Shabala’s excellent orchestra as well as the strength of Aaron Czarnecki’s voice as Prince Topher, but her glowing presence is perfectly elegant and kind, and she embodies the character beautifully.
And in this telling, Topher’s transformation from his identity crisis in “Me, Who Am I” to self-possessed, justice-minded king in command of his choices in the lovely duet “Do I love You Because You’re Beautiful” is as profound as Ella’s journey—partly because of the story revision but also thanks to Czarnecki’s marvelous performance and gorgeous singing that make the prince utterly sympathetic rather than goofy or wishy washy.
The ensemble cast, particularly in the grand ballroom numbers, are crucial to the show’s splendor—and the romance shows most profoundly through Melissa Cotton Hunter’s impressive choreography, with cart wheels, leaps, and hand stands for the men, pirouettes and high kicks for the women, and especially ambitious balletic lifts in “Ten Minutes Ago” as Topher and Ella sing “I may never come down.”
It’s another delightful, big musical from The Barn, the perfect summer escape into a much prettier, magical world, where overcoming unjust oppression leads to triumphant reward for all, and children and adults alike can believe again in themselves—and that dreams really do come true.
The Barn Theatre