Genuine TV blockbusters are rare, which makes tonight’s “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” a blessing. ABC’s long-awaited $12 million musical is simply smashing.
Brandy (Norwood) - the rhythm and blues recording sensation and star of KSKN’s “Moesha” sitcom - steps up to superstar status here. The kid’s now 18 and so obviously the next sensation that producers must already be forming a line at her agent’s door just off the buzz about this film.
Brandy, in a lavish new Disney musical, is nearly enough to make this an event, but when you add Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother and Jason Alexander, Whoopi Goldberg and Bernadette Peters, you have something for just about everyone.
The late Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II - arguably the greatest composers in Broadway musical history - wrote only one original show for television. This is it.
It first was performed live on CBS in 1957 with a promising young star named Julie Andrews as Cinderella. Andrews was then starring on Broadway in “My Fair Lady” and was still years away from her “Mary Poppins” Oscar and her biggest hit, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music.” A second version was done in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren as Cinderella. But it was Whitney Houston who really spearheaded the project, after seeing the CBS revival of “Gypsy.”
She approached the producers of that show four years ago, they suggested the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical and she agreed to star in it for CBS.
Before production could get going, though, Houston decided she now was too old - she’s 33 - to play Cinderella. By the time she decided to produce the film with Brandy in the leading role and herself as the Fairy Godmother, CBS balked at the rising costs - roughly three times the cost of the average two-hour TV movie - and Disney-owned ABC stepped in.
The result is an amazing, rainbow-hued production designed not only to appeal to all ages, but also to all ethnic groups. Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother are black and the Prince - Paolo Montalban - is Filipino. Cinderella’s stepmother is white (Bernadette Peters), while her stepsisters come in two shades - Veanne Cox, who’s white, and Natalie Desselle, who’s black. The Queen is black (Whoopi Goldberg), but her King is white (Victor Garber).
It all works like magic.
Whitney Houston opens the film with a brief chorus from “Impossible,” the original show’s big tune, then reprises it in a wonderful duet with Brandy. Decked out in gold, waving her wand with vigor, Houston is a street-savvy Fairy Godmother, but not obnoxiously so.
There’s no question, however, about who owns this show: Brandy is magnificently sweet and ethereal, proving she can step away from her contempo hustle and the “Moesha” image, giving a bravura performance as a wistful girl living off dreams.
Her smooth, soft voice is ideal for the Broadway tunes and she can crank up the volume and belt them out whenever necessary. It’s a real star turn for her.