‘Cinderella’ // Opera Australia and John Frost

‘Cinderella’ was clockable.

There was an air of attempt at Opera Australia and John Frost’s latest production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella’; an attempt at shifting gears and reimagining the key messages of the classic tale. While the additions and redirects didn’t quite land, the essence of the story and some striking performances carried the much-loved musical enough to be enjoyable.

A tale that needs no introduction, ‘Cinderella’ is iconic for its magical costume changes, whimsical hunt for a missing glass slipper, the cruelness of relatives and a shotgun romance. In this updated version, the themes of family and whimsy are all but lost, and the romance genre is mostly exchanged for a curious political narrative.

Disney fans may recall the 1997 rendition that starred Whitney Houston, Brandy, Whoopi Goldberg and the iconic Bernadette Peters; a ground-breaking rendition that celebrated blind casting and gave BIPOC children everywhere the chance to see themselves leading a universal story.

While the ’97 rendition was and continues to be adored, the musical was originally written for the 1957 television film starring Julie Andrews. The piece was adapted for stage in 1958, but it wasn’t until recent years that it was presented on Broadway with an entirely new book by Douglas Beane.

Beane’s rendition received mixed reviews when it premiered in 2013, and nearly a decade on, the piece now comes across as a woke reimagining by someone who doesn’t quite know what woke means. Beane’s attempt to steer away from the superficial and inject political commentary about voting falls short of relevant or necessary; a missed opportunity to explore the already prevalent themes of the original in a new light.

Fortunately, the music is some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s finest work – a saving grace of the show. Hits like ‘Impossible’, ‘Ten Minutes Ago’, and ‘In My Own Little Corner’ carried the story and had audience members humming along.

As a classic musical, it was nice to see more tangible set pieces incorporated by set designer Anna Louizos. Trees that morphed into houses, a staircase on a trolley, and a striking carriage led by model horses were all beautifully crafted. Louizos opted for a digital backdrop, which added little to the aesthetic and was unnecessary. ‘Cinderella’ is a particularly strong reminder that not all stage shows require the latest technology to be engaging and beautiful.

The use of smoke made for a beautiful traveling scene with Cinderella and her carriage, and the momentary flying of the Fairy Godmother was equally effective.

Hand puppet animals left more to be desired, and the animal traits were hardly reflected in the costumes of the performers who transformed from animals to people.

Other than these, the costume changes were a real highlight of this production. Multiple quick changes on stage were cleverly masked with strategic blocking and costume designs by William Ivey Long. In particular, Cinderella’s morph into her final golden gown was a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment.

Direction by Mark Brokaw balanced the need for outward presentation and sincere interaction between characters, particularly in a plot with awkward repetition across acts. Choreography by Josh Rhodes was most notable and fitting in the ball scenes but was otherwise rather limited and forgettable.

Shubshri Kandiah was youthful and energetic as Ella, if not a tad rushed in dialogue. Similarly, Ainsley Melham presented a perfectly charming Topher, but his scenes with Kandiah could have been held longer.

For the Brisbane season of ‘Cinderella’, Debora Krizak filled the role of Madame. Her voice was husky but controlled as she dominated her scenes and made for a bold antagonist. Nicholas Hammond was perfectly sour as Sebastian and Matilda Moran was refreshing in her portrayal of Gabrielle (one of the stepsisters).

Unfortunately, while Daniel Belle as Lord Pinkleton and Bianca Bruce as Charlotte (another stepsister) were both hilarious in their parts, it was disappointing to see the outdated trope of filling comedy roles with performers of a bigger build. One expects better, particularly from a show renowned for blind-casted renditions.

In many ways, Silvie Paladino as Marie (and Fairy Godmother) was the showstopper. Paladino’s vocals were indescribably powerful and beautiful.

The tale of ‘Cinderella’ is as timeless as storytelling itself. Unfortunately, Beane’s reimagining missed the opportunity to celebrate the diversity, whimsy and original themes in any meaningful way. Some beautiful performances, costuming and familiar plot points made for a watchable and mostly enjoyable experience.

‘Cinderella’ performed until 3 September 2022 at QPAC and continues to Sydney for an October opening. For more information visit the official Cinderella website.

Photos supplied.

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