New ‘Cinderella’ is gourd-geous

Mar 04, 2013

How do you come up with a new show that also feels comfortably familiar? On Broadway, the current answer is “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” — an actual premiere by the titans responsible for ancient megahits like “South Pacific,” “Carousel” and “The Sound of Music.”

But Rodgers and Hammerstein actually wrote “Cinderella” for a 1957 CBS broadcast, and for this belated Broadway debut the show’s book has been given the kind of face-lift that would make Joan Rivers jealous.

Director Mark Brokaw did stick to some tried-and-true tricks. For starters, he assembled a cast of stage pros, not pop or screen stars. Led by the lovely Laura Osnes (“Bonnie & Clyde”) in the title role and Tony-winning Victoria Clark (“The Light in the Piazza”) as the fairy godmother, they are finely attuned to the music.

This almost makes up for the fact that like its heroine, who spends half her time as a modest country girl and half as a glamour-puss, this “Cinderella” waffles between conflicting tones: full-on romantic fantasy for the kiddie-princess set and a campy romp.

The last bears the unmistakable stamp of Douglas Carter Beane, the wit responsible for the books of “Xanadu” and “Sister Act,” as well as his own hit comedy “The Little Dog Laughed.”

His Cinderella — now just plain Ella — is a spunky girl who doesn’t seem cowed by her stepmother, Madame (Harriet Harris, wonderfully tart), and stepsisters, Charlotte (the scene-stealing Ann Harada) and Gabrielle (Marla Mindelle). The latter are more goofy than mean, anyway.

As for the godmother, Marie, she’s a kind of bag lady of the woods: Or, as Ella describes her, “sweet and delicate, but nuts.”

The Prince, renamed Topher (Santino Fontana), has become a well-meaning college grad oblivious to his kingdom’s lack of freedom — a situation that infuriates the lefty activist Jean-Michel (Greg Hildreth).

Playing fast and very loose with the traditional story, Beane also injected many of his trademark quips.

“Why is there a pumpkin on the table?” Madame snaps at Ella. “It makes no design sense.”

The kids in the audience may not be swayed by this stuff, or by the clunky plot about the quest for democracy — a bore for older folks, too.

What does work for everybody is the eye candy of Anna Louizos’ oversize sets, which nicely fill the Broadway Theatre’s vast stage, and William Ivey Long’s sensational costumes — a couple of sleight-of-hand changes literally stop the show.

And of course there’s the unimpeachable score, which features several songs that had 56 years to turn into earworms, like “Stepsister’s Lament,” revived with hilarious verve by Harada (the quiet stage manager in “Smash”).

Osnes’ pure yet earthy soprano is a fine match for “In My Own Little Corner.” On “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful,” she trades evocative croons with the charming Fontana, confident in his first musical since “Billy Elliot.”

And then there’s the gorgeous “There’s Music in You” (actually pulled from a 1953 movie), which Clark spins into heavenly latticework in a second-act highlight.

A great song, a great singer: It may be an old trick, but it never stops feeling new.