Well, if it was my fate to sit in the rain for a few hours, I could think of worse ways to do it than to watch “Rogers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at Starlight Theatre.
The show itself is a class act on almost every level, from polished performances by skilled actors to a revised book that makes this family-friendly warhorse seem fresh, surprising and, at times, very funny. It’s also a physically sumptuous production, with eye-popping costumes and a scenic design imposing enough to fill that big Starlight stage.
Bottom line: This one gets my vote for the best Starlight show of the season so far.
The opening-night audience Tuesday persevered and made the most of a soggy night at Kansas City’s venerable outdoor showplace in which a light rain turned to drizzle. The precipitation never stopped, and a few folks bailed at intermission. But what seemed to be dozens of little girls in Cinderella dresses beneath their clear plastic ponchos evidently persuaded their parents to go the distance, rain or no rain.
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This show, originally written for television in 1957, didn’t make it to Broadway until 2013, after playwright Douglas Carter Beane was employed to rewrite Oscar Hammerstein’s book. Beane and arranger David Chase also contributed some new lyrics.
Beane’s approach, to re-imagine the show with big helpings of irony and self-aware humor, may not sit well with purists, but the comedy for the most part really works. Give credit to the actors, but Beane entertains himself — and theatergoers — by toying with the inherent absurdities of a fairy tale in which miraculous events are taken for granted.
In this version, Prince Topher (Andy Huntington Jones) is good-hearted but clueless and too easily swayed by Sebastian (Branch Woodman), his manipulative chancellor who enacts oppressive laws that deny the peasants their basic rights.
Cinderella (Paige Faure) is, of course, mistreated by a domineering stepmother, Madame (Beth Glover), and her two stepsisters, Gabrielle (Kaitlyn Davidson) and Charlotte (Aymee Garcia). Madame and her daughters entertain fantasies of “marrying well” while poor Cinderella scrubs, cleans and cooks.
But Gabrielle becomes a decidedly sympathetic character. She is courted by a nerdy political firebrand, Jean-Michel (Will Blum), whose passionate commitment to fighting for equal rights and volunteering at soup kitchens Gabrielle finds simply irresistible.
There is a ball, of course, and with the help of her fairy godmother, Marie (Kecia Lewis), Cinderella is decked out in a beautiful gown and transported to the palace in a pumpkin that metamorphoses into a carriage drawn by mice transformed into horses. Beane plays with the storyline in various ways, including elements that most theatergoers will likely find agreeably surprising.
Director Mark Brokaw provides a beautifully paced show that never feels rushed and only occasionally hits a lull. (Marie’s big Act 2 number, “There’s Music in You,” impressed the audience but inspired me to check my watch; that’s a criticism of the song, not the charismatic performer.)
The comic timing is impeccable throughout. Kudos to Garcia for a hilarious performance as the blustery Charlotte. Davidson is impressive as she negotiates Gabrielle’s transition from a self-centered stepsister to thoroughly likable bride-to-be. Glover offers an effortlessly deadpan take on Madame.
Nice comic performances are also registered by Blum and Woodman. Antoine L. Smith grabs attention as Lord Pinkleton, a sort of town crier whose narration helps move the story along.
The leads — Faure as Cinderella and Jones as Topher — are an appealing couple. Their performances are invested with low-key humor and a sincerity that makes them easy to root for.
Josh Rhodes’ choreography is precise and fills the stage with movement and color. And the scenic design by Anna Louizos, which shifts the action from a cabin in the woods to the palace and back, impresses with its sense of scale. For once a physical production doesn’t look too small for the Starlight stage.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” runs through July 12 at Starlight Theatre in Swope Park. Call 816-363-7827 or go to kcstarlight.com.