Times have changed and attitudes with them. When the Prince gives a ball in the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II version of Cinderella, no one is scandalized at the emergence in aristocratic circles of a dance that evolved from Austrian folk dances. Quite the opposite. Everyone at court is enchanted by the sight of an unidentified young woman, whom the audience knows to be the hopeful title character, intertwining her limbs voluptuously with the handsome heir to the throne.
It doesn't hurt, of course, that the waltzes in the 1957 musical -- initially shown in a slightly shorter form on television and now revived with decidedly mixed results by the New York City Opera -- are from Rodgers' nimble mind and fingers. If Johann Strauss II was the 19th-century waltz king, then certainly the 20th-century waltz king was Rodgers. A friend of mine insists that it's impossible to write a bad melody in three-quarter time, and I've come to think she's got something there. Nevertheless Rodgers, an effortless melody-maker, wrote some of the most transcendent waltzes ever. Tunes apparently flowed from him in the time it took to play them, as is hinted at by his reply when asked how long it took him to compose "Bali H'ai" for South Pacific: "A lifetime and seven minutes," he said.
If there's one overarching reason to see and hear Cinderella, it's for Rodgers's contributions (and the incomparable Robert Russell Bennett's scintillating orchestrations). The tunes are irresistible, instantly hummable but never simplistic. Of the composer's output -- to which a couple of the songs here add immeasurably -- it can truly be said they don't write 'em like that any more. The truth is that, nowadays, no one wants to write 'em like that any more -- including Rodgers' immensely gifted grandson, Adam Guettel. As mentioned above, times have changed and attitudes with them.
Part of the stigma attached to the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre, which by the early '50s was already beginning to be regarded as syrupy, was Hammerstein's half of the collaboration. Although it doesn't take more than a quick glance at Hammerstein's libretti and lyrics to realize that the man had a profound understanding of life's darker side and manifested it in Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I, he was often inclined to view the world through rose-colored glasses. He may never have given into that urge more than he did in the romantic Cinderella. No larks sing in these sumptuous ditties, but stars "tremble above you" and there are other similarly cloying images. Too often, hearing the score is akin to picking up a piece of enticing dark chocolate and finding a gooey filling within it.
Berry sings "In My Own Little Corner" and "A Lovely Night" seductively and acts beguilingly, as does Sieber, whose interpolated "Loneliness of Evening" is particularly good. On the other hand, Ana Gasteyer as cruel stepsister Portia and Dick Van Patten as the King make little impression. Lea DeLaria as the mean and mannish stepsister Joy works like a drone but to decreasing effect; it's rare that DeLaria misfires, but she sure does so here when repeatedly hiking her skirts and affecting a clodhopper walk.
Unable to enhance whatever charm is contained in the Hammerstein libretto, director-choreographer Baayork Lee is at sea. Her work with the large City Opera ensemble is desultory and her dances are perfunctory. To be fair to Lee, it's likely that her efforts were hampered by Gregg Barnes' colorful but cumbersome costumes. Epperson is a hoot in outfits that were apparently worn in NYCO's 1993 revival by Nancy Marchand(!) but he's had the advantage of walking runways in top designers' frocks; everyone else in the cast is slowed by the bulky wardrobe. Berry suffers especially in a ball gown that's too elaborate for easy staircase sprinting, while her wigs cascade this way and that and get in the way of her emoting. In the familiar Cinderella narrative, a pumpkin magically becomes a glittering vehicle, but little of that sort of magic is evident in this production.
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