‘Cinderella’ // Empire Theatre

‘Cinderella’ was polished.

In the most polished dress rehearsal community theatre has ever seen, ‘Cinderella’ was presented at The Empire, Toowoomba. With music and lyrics by the great Rodgers and Hammerstein, ‘Cinderella’ is the show that needs no introduction. A classic tale with significant themes of isolation, endurance, gender expectations and, of course, love.

Given the themes already available to play with, it is then bizarre that Douglas Carter Beane’s version layers in a beige commentary on the creation of democratic governance… Fans of the 1997 rendition, starring Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg and Bernadette Peters, are encouraged to overlook these misshapped add-ons; this reviewer has already shared thoughts on Beane’s jarring book when the piece was showcased at QPAC in 2022.

Thankfully, the production was safe in the hands of Timothy Hill, one of SEQ’s most highly acclaimed directors. Hill’s rendition gave body and weight to the scenes that mattered and, whether consciously or not, fast-tracked the dialogue that didn’t quite fit – like a prince pushing past the feet that do not fit the slipper. Hill was able to reinject the charm, romance and humour that many who tackle this rendition struggle to achieve.

With countless moving numbers like ‘Impossible’, ‘Ten Minutes Ago’, and ‘Do I Love You…’ it was a difficult task not to sing along. In fact, the vocal prowess of the entire company, paired with astute musicians and Musical Direction by Craig Renshaw, was in many ways the highlight of the show. Each song was impeccably sung and no performer could be faulted; the harmonies were soulful and the vibrato was expressive.

In alignment with this element, was the striking and tangible set design by – talented designer of the moment – Frances Story. Intricately crafted trees lined the stage, delicate lamps floated in from the fly loft, and a rotating house was plucked straight from a fairytale book for centre stage. Story’s work was intimate yet filling, detailed yet extravagant; and while many modern productions opt for digital projections, the use of physical pieces and painted backdrops was appreciated by lovers of traditional set design.

Tess Hill, a familiar name to the Empire stage, developed choreography of sophistication and regality. The ball scenes were the right balance of delicate and fun, but the true highlight came early on during ‘The Prince is Giving a Ball’. In this particular dance number, the ensemble pushed and pulled the audience along with them as Lord Pinkleton and Jean-Michel fought for the townspeople’s attention. Notably, Noah Hockey and Jonathan Vongdara were incredible as Raccoon and Fox respectively, and Hill utilised their talents in every which way throughout the production.

Costumes, designed by Debra Nairn, were intricate and appropriate; lighting design by Ben Hunt included some fantastic use of light and shade during battle scenes, as well as some nice magical touches for Marie; and sound design by Aaron Hannant was balanced.

The multiple quick changes on stage were directed and paced well; and while Ella and Marie’s gowns were quite nice for the reveals, in later scenes they could have benefited from a bigger and bolder look. A crinoline or thicker petticoat added side stage would have provided the wow factor that was somewhat missing in scenes following the reveals.

Vicki Bravery was brilliant as the insufferable Madame. Helen Walsh gave the audience powerhouse vocals as Marie; Flynn Walmsley was a charming and well comedically timed Jean-Michel; and Russell Reynolds presented a unique and pantomime-esque interpretation of Sebastian.

Stacey Burrow as Gabrielle showcased some incredible character acting. Burrow’s use of meaningful overexaggeration and quick changes in temperament had audiences glued to her. Lydia Cunnington as Charlotte led the female ensemble through the fun and cheeky ‘Stepsister’s Lament’. Cunnington employed a number of humourous vocal mimicry techniques, especially when her character wore something too tight, and had the audience in fits of laughter.

With very little agency or meaty dialogue, Shannon Gralow was still able to present an elegant and dimensional Ella. Gralow’s vocals were beautiful and her strength as a dancer was also highlighted in various numbers.

In many ways, Gabriel Tiller as Topher gave the standout performance of the evening. From his breath-taking harmonies with Gralow to his unwavering stage presence, Tiller was world class in his performance.

Better than Disney, The Empire’s rendition of ‘Cinderella’, under the expert direction of Timothy Hill, must be seen to be believed. This is a very high quality production, that injects more heart and soul than recent renditions have been able to do. Placing an emphasis on the timeless themes of love, friendship, family and purpose, this ‘Cinderella’ is an exceptionally polished and enjoyable experience.

‘Cinderella’ performs until 23 March 2024 at The Empire. For more information visit their website.

Photo by Justin Nicholas

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  1. What a fabulous review – well done to the cast, crew and director. Sounds like a must-see! – and looking forward to doing so when we come up from Brisbane next week. All the best for the coming performances.

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