Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The show, a remount of this company's 2014 production, is a sumptuous confection of wit, romance, fantasy, outright zaniness, and dazzling visual design. Adapter John Davidson and director Peter Brosius manage to make this archetypal female-in-need-of-rescue narrative palatable to 21st century sensibilities while drawing attention to those themes that are as powerful and relevant today as they ever were.
Many factors make the production fairly irresistible, but the most important is Traci Allen Shannon, who approaches the part of the downtrodden orphan, Cinderella, with warmth, longing, and dignity, and exactly the right amount of irony to avoid ever appearing precious. Shannon is well matched with David Murray as the Prince. Both have exceptionally sweet voices. When they sing together, it's transporting.
Davidson's Prince is among the most ingenious modifications to the source tale. Like Cinderella, he is lonely and misunderstood. Bullied by his father and sought after by fortune-seekers, he wishes only to be loved for who he is. He and Cinderella have so much in common that their differences in status barely matters at all. They rescue each other.
The bulk of the play takes place in the home of Cinderella's step-family. That this Cinderella is three parts comedy and one part romance didn't bother me at all, and it certainly didn't seem to bother the target audience. The program notes that the stepsisters perform in the panto tradition, but their style of humor seems as much vaudevillian, albeit with touches of the Borscht Belt and sketch-comedy humor. As the nerdy, awkward sister, Pearl, Dean Holt's mastery of physical comedy is on full display. In a braided wig and a dorky oversized dress, he reminded me of Carol Burnett in her heyday. Reed Sigmund is a hoot and a holler as the lazy sister, Dorcas, and Autumn Ness as the ditzy, vain, and fashion-challenged Stepmother, is a study in distracted parenting.
CTC keeps the audience softly lit during the performance, so I was able at to observe the reactions of the children present. From what I could see, the interactive features generated the most excitement. Directed to stand up whenever a secret word was mentioned, the kids complied enthusiastically, and the candy thrown into the audience was a big hit among the smallish types. What seemed to induce the most gasps was the lush, silvery ball scene, with its elegant dancers in full 18th century garbtall white wigs, full flowing gowns, and grey satin vests. In that scene, Shannon as Cinderella eventually appears at the top of a grand staircase in a sparkly cascade of silver that is sheer magic. But perhaps the play's most riveting moment occurs in the previous scene, when mice transform into footmen and a pumpkin into a golden, gilded carriage, which is pulled across the stage, with a regal Cinderella in tow.
Its not surprising that the moments that held the youngsters rapt were also the most theatrical. And that brings me to the main reservation I have about Cinderella: its excessive allusions to popular culture. The stepsisters draw laughs through references to things like Pokémon and the Kardashians. Part of the appeal of inside jokes that they make those who get them feel like insiders. To be clueless is often equated with being uncool and most kids want badly to belong. I have no objection to drawing on popular culture as a means to make connections between past and present or, more precisely, to convey the relevance of traditional folklore or fairy tales. Nor am I suggesting that children's theater needs to be anti-commercial to be effective (I loved CTC's production of High School Musical some years back). But in some ways, the incessant recourse to commercial culture seems counter to the point of taking your kids to the theater. Given that some parents wish to use these shows as a way to introduce their children to theater, it seems to me that the balance should tilt toward forms of storytelling and humor that are not easily found outside it.
That said, the 8- to 12-year-old crowd seemed to eat up the popular culture referencesalthough most of the references seemed to go over the heads of the littler ones (they laughed the hardest at Holt's pratfalls and Ness's over-the-top hysterical flirtation with the Lord High Chamberlain, played by Gerald Drake). Being a sucker for puns, I took most pleasure in the witty wordplay that passed between Ness and her unfortunate daughters. There is something for everyone in this Cinderella, so whether you take your kids or go solo, you're almost certain to have a ball (pun intended). It is a marvelous, magical, squeal-worthy show that will appeal to kids of all ages (and genders), from 2 to 92.
Cinderella, based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, adapted by John B. Davidson, is being performed through January 8, 2017, at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55404. To order tickets or for further information, visit www.childrenstheatre.org or call the box office at 612-874-0400.
Directed by Peter C. Brosius