Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella Is a Lovely Night at Paper Mill Playhouse
The 2013 Broadway musical version of Cinderella comes to New Jersey for the holidays, starring Ashley Blanchet.
Douglas Carter Beane's feminist upgrade of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella is alive and well in its holiday-season run at Paper Mill Playhouse. If anything, it's grown into itself in the years since its 2013 Broadway debut — a simpler time when having our princess-to-be grab her fallen shoe or use her time at the royal ball to lobby policy changes seemed excessively performative. And maybe it still is. But our collective tolerance for on-the-nose female empowerment stories has expanded in the latter half of the decade.
Of course, this Cinderella isn't all social justice and political statements. It's still that lovable rags-to-riches fairy tale with gorgeous gowns (Tony-winning design by William Ivey Long), luscious ballroom dancing (new choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter), and a timeless score by the unparalleled Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Mark S. Hoebee directs with one foot in classic elegance and the other in modern cheekiness to match Beane's book, which also straddles that line. The musical is set in an old-fashioned storybook kingdom filled with quaint cottages and dragon-infested forests (set design by Anna Louizos), but its inhabitants get to have more quirks than fairy tales typically allow for. In this version, Prince Topher is more awkward than princely (Billy Harrigan Tighe performs with a boyish dopiness but a regal voice). A naive puppet of Lord Chancellor Sebastian (a delightfully wry Christopher Sieber), he knows very little about the kingdom he rules, is dissatisfied with his daily pursuits, and is not searching for a bride, but rather, himself (he sings "Me, Who Am I?," a Rodgers and Hammerstein gem plucked from the lesser-known musical Me & Juliet). Of course we eventually get to his quest for a bride. This is Cinderella after all. We need a royal ball.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the kingdom, Ella (Ashley Blanchet) knows who she is — just not what she's capable of. She's a peasant girl who has resigned herself to a life tending to the needs of her wicked stepmother (a perfectly cast Dee Hoty) and two stepsisters (a pair of great comic performances by Angel Lin as the brazen and oversexed Charlotte, and Rose Hemingway as the covertly altruistic Gabrielle). She values kindness above all else, and nurtures friendships with political activist Jean-Michel (a blustering Andrew Kober) and local crazy lady Marie (a thoroughly amusing Donna English in wonderful voice), who, in a twist of good karma, turns out to be a fairy godmother who can make Ella's wildest dreams come true. Cue the coach, the horses, the footman, and, of course, the gown in one of the most magical costume changes you're likely to see on a stage.
Blanchet is the picture of grace as the title character, dancing elegantly and singing beautiful renditions of Cinderella's beloved "In My Own Little Corner" and "A Lovely Night," not to mention her enchanting "Ten Minutes Ago" duet with Tighe. In the cheesier moments of Beane's dialogue (there are several), she slips toward the overexcited Disney Princess side of the spectrum, losing a bit of the grounded authenticity that makes this version of Cinderella so appealing. But as leading ladies go, Paper Mill has found a strong one who will certainly be meeting and greeting a lot of starstruck children at the stage door.
And isn't it wonderful that those children will be asking her questions about helping Jean-Michel in his crusade on behalf of the working class; or how she held on to both her shoes until she was ready to be found; or how "Kindness" can be a really fun party game? She'll most certainly also field questions about her magical ball gown and how she kept that tiara hidden under her head scarf. And you know what? That's what being a princess in 2019 is all about.