Enchantment, off-key comedy in revised Cinderella

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Kaitlyn Davidson is Ella and Andy Huntington Jones is Topher, her prince, in the touring company of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, playing the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Davidson’s Ella (far right) must contend with the wicked stepmother and stepsisters played by (from left) Blair Ross, Kimberly Fauré and Aymee Garcia. Photos © Carol Rosegg

There has rarely been a moment when Cinderella’s glass slipper wasn’t the hottest shoe on the market. The Charles Perrault fairy tale is among the most well worn in the storybooks and shows no signs of losing her edge. A great deal of her popularity must be attributed to the Disney machine, er, Studio, which animated the tale in 1950 and then remade it in 2015 as a live-action film (well, a lot of live action and a lot of computer animation and effects). Side note: the geniuses at Disney produced a straight-to-video sequel to Cinderella in 2002 followed by a second sequel in 2007.

Running parallel to the evolution of Disney’s popular princess is the dynamic musical theater duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who turned Cinderella into a musical for live television in 1957. That broadcast, starring Julie Andrews was watched by some 107 million people (a staggering 60% of the country). The musical leapt to the British stage soon after, and then to American stages in the early ’60s. Capitalizing on that popularity, a second television production was mounted in 1965 starring Lesley Ann Warren, and still a third (much more drastically re-worked with Rodgers & Hart songs added) was broadcast in 1997 starring Brandy and Whitney Houston.

If audiences get confused by this abundance of Cinderella that’s completely understandable, especially if they assume that the Rodgers and Hammerstein version has something to do with Disney. Any confusion will only be exacerbated by the 2013 Broadway production, which involved some major revision in the book by Douglas Carter Beane and a production design that looks like it took inspiration from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

The Broadway production won a Tony Award for William Ivey Long’s lush, plush, jewel-toned costumes (and a gold dress for Cinderella that probably has Belle’s name tag sewn into it somewhere), which actually provide some of the liveliest moments in the show. Both the fairy godmother and Cinderella make flashy costume changes before our eyes: the godmother going from crone to magical beauty (like the witch in Into the Woods) and Cinderella going from charwoman to princess faster than you can say bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.

The touring company of the Broadway Cinderella finally made its San Francisco debut this week and has a short run through Sunday as part of the SHN season. The show played San Jose last year, and if Wednesday’s opening-night crowd is any indication, there are a whole lot of princess worshippers (prinshippers?) right here in the City? Who knew audiences still audibly swooned when a prince kisses a princess? Indeed they do.

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And there’s a lot that’s swoonworthy in this production, most notably the Rodgers and Hammerstein score and the two leads.

Even a secondary R&H score, which this mostly is, has aural treasures beyond compare. How could anyone not enjoy lilting tunes like “Impossible/It’s Possible” and “A Lovely Night” or not succumb to the romantic sweep of “Ten Minutes Ago” or “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” or the sweet melancholy of “In My Own Little Corner”? This production (like others before it) incorporates R&H songs from other projects like “He Was Tall” (cut from The King and I), “The Loneliness of Evening” cut from South Pacific, “Me, Who Am I?” from Me and Juliet and “There’s Music in You” from the 1953 movie Main Street to Broadway (which featured Rodgers and Hammerstein playing themselves working on this song with Mary Martin).

The score is a definite highlight here and a sobering reminder that no one writes with the lyrical and melodic sophistication and apparent ease of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s not simply old-fashioned Broadway – it’s gold-standard Broadway. And that’s why Beane’s re-worked script clunks more than it works. Imagine keeping all the famous bits of Hamlet but reworking the rest with contemporary dialogue and pseudo-political, thoroughly politically correct meanderings. You’d have a mess, and that’s sort of what happens here, granted we’re not quite at the Hamlet level, but still, with a strong musical comedy score you want a book to match its tone, and this one aims for cheap laughs rather than nobility or romance.

As with so many modern re-workings of fairy tales, the princess is no longer a damsel in distress waiting for a handsome but personality-free man to come and save her. This Cinderella (played with gusto by Kaitlyn Davidson) practices the power of kindness (her eventual book will surely make it to Oprah’s book club), and though a dilettante in matters of politics, she’s not afraid to tell the obtuse prince what’s going wrong with his kingdom’s laws and economy. She’s oppressed by her wicked stepmother (a droll Blair Ross) and one self-involved stepsister (Lulu Picart) but treated sweetly by the other stepsister, Gabrielle (Kimberly Faure), who is in love with the newly invented character Jean-Michel (David Andino), the kingdom’s rabble-rouser.

Davidson has a lovely voice, and you root for her from the start, which is always a plus in this rags-to-tiara tale. She is ably supported by Andy Huntington Jones as Prince Topher, a sheltered royal whose parents have shuffled off this mortal crown (unlike previous versions in which the King and Queen are alive and singing). He’s being bamboozled by his trusted vizier (shades of Disney’s Aladdin), Sebastian (Blake Hammond), who is a money-grubbing, land-grabbing, power-hungry creep. In this version, Prince Topher may have the money, clothes and palace, but he is saved by Cinderella, who shakes him out of his aristocratic stupor and sets him back on the throne to glory.

That’s all well and good, but what registers here is what has always registered: the fairy godmother granting life-changing wishes, turning mice into horses, woodland animals (played by annoying hand puppets) into coachmen, a pumpkin into a coach and a dress of rags into a sparking ball gown. That and the kiss and the (spoiler alert on a 1,500-year-old story!) royal wedding.

It seems they keep trying to turn Cinderella into an even bigger fantasy – blowing up the coach and puffing up the dress, you might say – but the story is what it always was: wish fulfillment, sparkles and a happy ending.

[bonus video]
Here’s a look at the 2013 Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella:

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella continues through Sunday, May 8 at the SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$212. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Xanadu the right thing

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Brittany Danielle (center) is Kira in the Center Repertory Company production of Xanadu. Her phalanx includes (from left) Catherine Gloria as Euterpe, Maureen McVerry as Calliope, Evan Boomer as Terpsicore, Mark Farrell as Thalia, Dyan McBride as Melpomene and Sharon Rietkerk as Erato. Below: Tom Reardon (left) as Danny and Tim Homsley as Sonny. Photos by www.kevinberne.com

Summer camp has started early this year, but not to worry. This is some high quality high camp.

We’ve had a few Bay Area productions of Xanadu, the Broadway musical version of the notorious 1980 movie starring Olivia Newton-John as a roller-skating light bulb, er, sorry, roller-skating Muse (you know, from Mt. Olympus kind of muse). The Retro Dome in San Jose and New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco both did the show last year, but having missed the show during its 2007/08, I was waiting for the Center Repertory Company production that just opened.

I’m so glad I waited.

Before I tell you how fabulous this production is – and fabulous really is the operative word on so many levels – I have to confess to being a Xanadu fan. There’s a joke in the show about this being “children’s theater for 40-year-old gays,” and it’s like book writer Douglas Carter Beane was talking directly to me. I was 13 when, at the grocery store, I bought the soundtrack album to Xanadu (yes, on vinyl) before seeing the film. I was completely enthralled with Side 1 as the Olivia Newton-John side and Side 2 as the Electric Light Orchestra. There were guest appearances by the rock band The Tubes (“Dancin'”), Cliff Richard (“Suddenly”) and Gene Kelly (“Whenever You’re Away from Me”), and then ON-J herself appeared on the ELO side to sing the synth-happy title song. It was bliss.

Then I saw the movie, and even at 13 I knew it was crap. Sure I liked it, but it wasn’t nearly as good as what I had imagined looking at the production photos on the album cover while I memorized the songs.

I must say I was doubtful about the joke-laden Broadway translation of the movie as a glorified jukebox musical, especially because I never warmed to the Broadway cast recording. But now, having seen an exuberant and very funny production of the show, I’ve come closer to seeing that original version in my 13-year-old head.

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Director Jeff Collister and a cast of stalwart comedians make great use of the three essential “S’s”: silliness, sassiness and sincerity. Everybody gets the joke that they’re in an intentionally campy, in-joke send-up of the original movie, the “stinkaroo” movie as someone on the show describes it. But there’s also some sweetness in between the abundant laughs. Beane has gone a long way toward making sense of the movie by actually giving it a plot, and now the title song, sung in full-tilt, rainbow-flag waving glory at the end, actually makes a modicum of sense. No mean feat.

When a Venice Beach (California) chalk artist meets his muse, he’s inspired to open up a palace that infuses all art forms with something athletic. “I want to open a roller disco,” says Sonny the (very) blond artist (Tim Homsley). “How timeless,” responds Kira, the muse in disguise (Brittany Danielle). It’s amazing her wheels aren’t slipping in the puddles of irony filling the stage.

The goal for both Sonny and Kira (who’s actually the Muse Clio, born of Zeus) is to be granted the “state of Xanadu.” What that is, who can say, but every time the word is uttered, someone pops up to repeat it as if it’s really, really, really important (not unlike the show itself). It’s all ridiculous but in a mostly sublime way. Smart without being overly so and stupid in just the right measure.

And then there are all those songs, most from the original soundtrack with a few ON-J and ELO songs thrown in for good jukebox-y measure. Whether or not these are good songs, I cannot say. They’re my songs. I love them and I still know all the words. So hearing musical director Brandon Adams’ crack quartet spinning out these peppy, poppy tunes is a nostalgic delight.

Enough cannot be said about leading lady Danielle, who sings, jokes and ROLLERSKATES like a dream. Olivia Newton-John wishes she could be so funny and so graceful. And the supporting cast is filled with marvelous moments, large and small. Dyan McBride costumed by Victoria Livingston-Hall and bewigged by Judy Disbrow looks like a cross between Cher and Heart’s Ann Wilson with some Endora from “Bewitched” thrown in for good measure. She’s Melpomene, the oldest Muse, who cackles and giggles because she’s the bad guy along with her sister Calliope, played by the invaluable Maureen McVerry, who behaves as if she’s channeling one of Carol Burnett’s old addled characters. In fact, this whole show reminded me a little of a finale from the old “Carol Burnett Show” – a lot of singing, dancing and expert comedy thrown together by smart people in a hurry. Cheers to choreographer Jennifer Perry for all her knowing winks to the disco era and to set designer Kelly Tighe and lighting designer Kurt Landisman for drawing a thin, thin line between fun and tacky. A million lights are dancing and there you are, a shooting star…

Comic gold is also dispensed by the two cross-dressing Muses, Mark Farrell as Thalia and Evan Boomer as Terpsicore, and Sharon Rietkerk needs an entire show for her nipple-pinching Muse, Erato. And in that show, there should be a showcase for the vocal talents of Caterine Gloria, who plays Muse Euterpe.

Tom Reardon is a hoot as real estate mogul Danny (who once had a fling with a Muse himself), but he brings down the house as Zeus when the action shifts to Mt. Olympus (and Farrell makes such a good Maggie Smith that the “Downton Abbey” folks should be in touch).

This is such an enjoyable production, filled with broad comedy, charming pop and some wonderful calibrated little details that reward the careful observer (and fans of the movie). If, as this show tells us, the theater is going down the toilet with recycled movie mush like this, I’m happy to take the trip in such colorful company.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Xanadu book writer Douglas Carter Beane last December when the show opened at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Read the feature here.

Center Repertory Company’s Xanadu continues through June 23 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets are $40-$47. Call 925-943-7469 or visit www.centerrep.org.

Oh do do the Xanadu that you do so well

Xanadu 2You have to believe we are magic: Chloe Condon is Kira, the muse from Mt. Olympus, and Joe Wicht is real estate mogul Daniel in the New Conservatory Theatre Center production of Xanadu: The Musical. Photo by Lois Tema Photography

When I called playwright Douglas Carter Beane to interview him for a San Francisco Chronicle story on Xanadu: The Musical at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, he happened to be taking a break from rehearsals for his latest Broadway show, Lysistrata Jones. That musical, a hip, funny adaptation of the Aristophanes classic, happens to rehearse in the same building as the Foxwoods Theatre, home to Broadway’s notorious web slinger, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Douglas Carter BeaneWith his ear pressed to his cell phone, Beane surveyed the crowded sidewalk and quipped, “I hope people don’t think I’m buying tickets.”

Lyssie Jay, as Beane calls it, opens Wednesday (Dec. 14) after a successful run off-Broadway. It’s something of a family affair what with Beane’s partner, Lewis Flinn, providing the music and lyrics and Beane providing the book. The story has been updated so that instead of Greek women withholding sex until the men stop warring, it’s now a college cheerleading squad withholding nookie from a losing basketball team until they start winning some games.

While San Francisco audiences get a gander at what magic Beane worked with Xanadu (he wrote the book), Beane is essentially storming Manhattan. There’s buzz about his libretto revision for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella popping up next year. He’s also casting for The Big Time, what he describes as his “feel-good musical about terrorism.” The show is slated for off-Broadway. “The G-8 is on a cruise ship that’s taken over by terrorists, and the lounge singers on the ship end up saving the day,” Beane explains. “How would the Freed Unit at MGM back in the day deal with terrorism? It’s silly but very moving. I’m quite proud of it.”

He’s also working on a new play called The Nance for Nathan Lane (“the great genius Nathan Lane” as Beane puts it). “It’s a real period gay play I’ve been wanting do for a while,” Beane says. “It’s set in the world of burlesque and it’s about the gay stock comedy character, the nance.”

As if Beane weren’t busy enough (did I mention he also did all the re-writes on Sister Act: The Musical?), he and Flinn are raising two kids, Cooper, 7, and Gabby, 5. The secret to his success, he says, is: “A cute partner who is significantly younger. The children are also younger. Even our dog is younger.”

Visit the official website for Lysistrata Jones here.

Read my San Francisco Chronicle feature on NCTC’s Xanadu here.


Xanadu: The Musical continues through Jan. 15 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, Decker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $25 to $45. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.