The Muny presents a delightful version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” that keeps all the songs and whimsy of the original while taking a fresh look at the principal characters and their world. The production features an updated book by Douglas Carter Beane that doesn’t change the essential story – we still have an underappreciated heroine, a prince looking for a wife, a scheming stepmother and a magical fairy godmother – but adds an emphasis on equality and kindness that resonates.
Ella, also known as Cinderella, is the stepdaughter of Madame, a woman desperately trying to climb the social ladder and eager to position one of her other daughter’s as the soon-to-be king Prince Topher’s wife. Topher has spent years away from home attending school, so he’s unaware that his guardian, Sebastian, has radically changed the kingdom. What once was a happy, peaceful land of coexistence is know a land in which the greedy rich prey upon the poor and less fortunate citizens. Sebastian attempts to distract Topher from his nefarious dealings by prompting him to choose a wife. It is against this new backdrop that a ball is held, a fairy godmother appears and Ella and Topher fall in love and take steps to make the kingdom more equitable for all its citizens.
Mikaela Bennett and Jason Gotay are well matched as Ella and Topher, and refreshingly filled with relatable doubts and insecurities. Bennett is a beautiful woman but in a way that’s realistic and relatable, though her voice, with its impressive range and tone, is something few possess. “In My Own Little Corner” is a warm and inviting ballad, while “Ten Minutes Ago” features crystal clear high notes and a sense of excitement.
Ella is also motivated by compassion, a trait that’s emphasized throughout the show but most specifically when she suggests a game of kindness instead of ridicule. Additionally, Ella’s relationship with her stepsisters, Gabrielle and Charlotte, is based on appreciation and friendship instead of acrimony and jealousy. She and Gabrielle, played with a quirky, bookish personality by Stephanie Gibson, are particularly close, and Jennifer Cody is wonderfully physical as Charlotte. Her spirited take on “The Stepsister’s Lament” is a bright and comic moment.
Gotay is handsome and courtly, but there’s an occasional awkward uncertainty to his character that’s endearing. Duped by his guardian Sebastian into ruling in absentia, he shows his metal when he learns of trouble in his kingdom. As importantly, both Ella and the prince have autonomy and agency, ensuring the two are more than props for a fancy wedding. The young lovers elicit hope for a better tomorrow and their interactions with others are rooted in genuine kindness, giving the show a more contemporary feel without losing any of the charm of the original story.
Ashley Brown is more than a little magical as Marie, the fairy godmother, and she and Bennett delight with their take on “Impossible.” John Scherer is deliciously evil as Sebastian, with an imperious air that adds humor the role. Alison Fraser is appropriately callous and presumptuous as the desperate stepmother Madame, though her vocal fry is at times grating on the ear. Chad Burris, as the revolutionary minded Jean-Michel, and Victor Ryan Robertson, as Lord Pinkleton, standout in support, while the Muny kids and teens are endearing as the woodland creatures.
Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and music director Greg Anthony Rassen make smart choices to ensure the audience, which includes a plethora of young people, remains engaged throughout the fast paced show. Numerous quick changes transform Marie into the fairy godmother and the woodland animals into a coachman, driver and four impressive horses. Puppet Kitchen International and Eric Wright lend a hand to a creative team that features choreographer Josh Walden, scenic designer Paige Hathaway and video designer Nathan W. Scheuer, creating the necessary stage magic with a touch of whimsy.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” may surprise audience members expecting the Disney cartoon, but the show retains all of the positivity and cheerfulness of the beloved tale. The updated book, which emphasizes the personality and motivations of the lead characters, is appealing and compelling and generally sticks to the original story arc. The changes emphasize kindness, cooperation and acknowledging others without detracting from the fantastical love story. In this reviewer’s opinion, it’s a change for the better that enhances the charming tale.
At The Muny through July 16. For more information call (314) 361-1900 or visit www.muny.org.