Laura Osnes is the winning, charismatic center of this unfortunately overblown retelling of the classic musical fairy tale.
In fact, the first section of the show could momentarily be confused with Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. After we have to watch--with complete puzzlement--the fresh-faced Topher battle some sort of forest creature on Anna Louizos' surprisingly unwieldy set, we must listen to the obvious machinations of snobby protector Sebastian (a martini-dry Peter Bartlett) and the revolutionary fervor of townsperson Jean-Michel (a so-so Greg Hildreth) for too long. And during all this folderol and fiddledee, it won't just be the little girls in the audience asking "Where is Cinderella?" The title star is barely there for the first 20 minutes.
I'm not being a purist, I assure you. It's fine with me that this Cinderella isn't a carbon copy of either the original 1957 television special starring Julie Andrews, or the beloved 1965 TV version starring Lesley Ann Warren. And I admit there are plenty of good intentions in librettist Douglas Carter Beane's new book, especially in making Cinderella a somewhat proactive heroine who fights, albeit gently, for the rights of her fellow citizens and helps turn Topher into a true leader. Moreover, having stepsister Gabrielle (the talented if underutilized Marla Mindelle) and Cinderella eventually bond is a nice proto-feminist touch, and a welcome lesson for the many tweens and teens in the audience.
Still, given how funny Beane (Sister Act, The Little Dog Laughed) can be, it's surprising there isn't better comic material coming out of the mouths of the spectacularly droll Bartlett, the equally wonderful Harriet Harris--doing her patented mean-mama schtick effortlessly as evil stepmother Madame--and the delicious Ann Harada as "ugly" stepsister Charlotte. Beane's trademark zingers, when they do appear, admittedly sound a bit jarring in context, and are likely go over the kiddies' heads. But putting in at least a few more witticisms would give far more pleasure to the adults (on stage and off) than adding such thankfully forgotten Rodgers & Hammerstein's songs as "Me, Who Am I" and "Now Is the Time." (On the plus side, keeping the beautiful "There's Music In You," which was added for the 1997 television movie starring Whitney Houston, proves to be a very smart move, especially given Clark's gorgeous, near-operatic rendition.)
What will enchant audiences of all ages, thankfully, is the sweeping, athletic choreography of Josh Rhodes, lovingly executed by a fine ensemble outfitted in William Ivey Long's colorful and clever costumes. (Special praise belongs to Andy Mills and Cody Williams for their fleetness as the fox-turned-footman and raccoon-turned-driver.) Best of all, though, is the opportunity to hear--whether for the first time or the twentieth--the original Rodgers and Hammerstein score, from the heartfelt romanticism of "Ten Minutes Ago" and "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful," both stunningly sung by Osnes and Fontina, to the joyous optimism of Clark's "Impossible," to the delectable bitterness in a slightly reworked version of "Stepsister's Lament," performed with suitable bite by Harada and the ladies of the court.
By the end of the evening, there is simply too much political and sociological blather (is an election really necessary?) slathered on top of what remains, essentially, a slim children-centric fairytale. This Cinderella too often resembles the kind of overstuffed, over-intellectualized sandwiches found in trendy Tribeca eateries--they sound great on the menu, but once they arrive on the plate, you realize they're far less appetizing than imagined.