This tuneful “Cinderella” is a crowd-pleasing, kid-friendly smash for a whole list of reasons:
• A cute pack of squeaking, lovable mice, portrayed by puppets.
• Excellent production values, rivaling those of many national tours, culminating with the transformation (amidst fog and flashing lights) of a pumpkin into a carriage.
• The sophisticated melodies of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (backed by an 18-piece orchestra).
• A beautiful Cinderella, a feisty Fairy Godmother and an endearing Prince, all with national-class vocal talent.
And that doesn’t even include the triple star-turn of the Travolta sisters (Ellen, Margaret and Annie), who play the cruel Stepmother and her two obnoxious daughters with hilarious, scene-stealing glee.
And topping it all off is the fairy-tale ending of all fairy-tale endings, when the downtrodden Cinderella marries the kind and handsome prince – with the lovable mice squeaking their approval.
“Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” perfectly illustrates why the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre is one of the top summer-stock theaters in the country, beginning with the casting. Director Roger Welch can attract the top talent from around the region and the country, which becomes abundantly clear in two first-act duets.
The opening scene features Cinderella (Jessica Skerritt) and Prince Christopher (Andrew Ware Lewis) joining in on a classic Richard Rodgers melody “The Sweetest Sound.” They both sing with power, grace and pitch-perfect precision.
The second duet features Skerritt with the Fairy Godmother (Meghan Maddox Whitaker) on another great Rodgers and Hammerstein tune, “Impossible.” Again, the delivery from both actresses is confident, technically first-rate and full of personality.
Skerritt is the common thread in both scenes, and – frankly, I was bowled over by her performance from start to finish. She’s tall and blond, with excellent stage presence – even in the early scenes, when she is being treated like soot by her horrid stepmother and stepsisters. Skerritt plays her as truly humble, as a good Cinderella should be, yet worthy of a better fate than as whipping girl for her hateful family.
Then, in the ballroom scenes and the romantic interludes with the Prince, she blossoms into the self-confident woman beneath the soot. In every way, a first-rate Cinderella.
Ware Lewis is every bit as endearing as the Prince, and Meghan Maddox Whitaker is a whirlwind of fun as a bubbly and eccentric kind of Fairy Godmother, who, when asked why she doesn’t have a magic wand, says, “Been there, done that.” (The ’57 dialogue was updated for the ’97 TV adaptation starring Brandy and Whitney Houston).
The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with special mention going to Christopher Moll as the acerbic and put-upon Royal Steward.
And then there are the Travolta sisters. Costumer Judith McGiveney signals right away that they are to be objects of fun. Ellen, as the stepmother, has a purple dress and purple curls to match; Margaret, as Joy, has bright green curls, and Annie, as Grace, has yellow.
Ellen clearly relishes playing the stepmother as the pushiest and meanest stage mother of all time, with the “stage” being the prince’s ballroom. She wants her girls to win the heart of the prince – but there are two flaws in that plan, one named Grace and one named Joy. The Travoltas – all skilled in broad physical comedy – clearly have a delicious time playing them as stupid, awkward, clumsy, greedy, cruel and entitled.
In other words, everything that Cinderella isn’t. The crowd particularly loved their vaudeville-style song, “The Stepsisters’ Lament.”
The other big crowd-pleasers were the mice: Furry puppets on poles, manipulated “Lion King”-style by black-clad actors.
The happiest surprise of this production is the level of sheer magic that Welch and Michael McGiveney, the set and lighting designer, bring to the stage. The curtain opens to reveal hundreds of twinkling stars – with the Fairy Godmother twinkling in their midst.
Kids today are accustomed to CGI effects, yet I’m confident that they will still be impressed by the old-fashioned stage legerdemain that turns the pumpkin into a coach and the mice into horses.
Even a familiar tale like “Cinderella” can seem newly vivid when seen live, on stage.
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