Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella
There's a new princess holding court at the Broadway Theatre in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella. The exuberant, 21-year-old Keke Palmer has taken the throne as its final inhabitant before the production closes up shop on January 3. And who better to pick up the scepter for the show's last stretch than this radiant rising star with a faithful Disney Channel and Nickelodeon constituency?
Palmer is marking this transition with a Broadway debut as the most classically elegant character the New York stage has to offer — a choice, in and of itself, worthy of the admiration of the little girls who dress up in their sparkliest gowns to see this fairy-tale princess find her destiny before their very eyes. Palmer's Cinderella, however, falls somewhere undecidedly between a capricious youngster and a determined, maturing woman. The actress is at her most charming when she embraces the former persona with her naturally off-center aura of transitioning adolescence — the winning personality that earned her the adoring fans who greet her in set designer Anna Louizos' enchanted forest with resounding applause. Yet, she all too often grasps at the latter, attempting a guise of ethereal majesty that's slightly too big for her britches. Especially when these royal britches were originally filled by 27-year-old Laura Osnes, whose controlled presence and soaring voice channeled the natural regality of television's original 1957 Cinderella, Julie Andrews. As Palmer dances with her prince at the ball — one of Josh Rhodes' beautifully crafted ensemble numbers — it looks as if William Ivey Long's Tony-winning white gown is the dress-up costume of a young girl who snuck into her mother's bedroom to try it on with a too-big pair of high heels.
Palmer and her "charming" costar Joe Carroll, who has been in the role of Prince Topher since the musical's original Tony-nominated star Santino Fontana departed the production, seems better matched during their vocal duets. Palmer surprises with a vocal clarity that her R&B/hip-hop career rarely has showcased. Though she approaches the Rodgers and Hammerstein score with some timidity, Palmer proves that she truly can chuck the engineering and autotune and hang with the eight-show-a-week big boys on Broadway.
The new cast of Cinderella boasts another Broadway debut in comedian Sherri Shepherd. She joins as Cinderella's evil stepmother Madame (originated by Harriet Harris), a role Shepherd wears well when she drops the faux-aristocracy routine and sticks to the brassy humor she does best. Two-time Tony Award winner Judy Kaye throws some Broadway seasoning into the mix as the newest fairy godmother Marie, fittingly filling the harness previously occupied by fellow full-voiced sopranos Victoria Clark and Rebecca Luker.
The rest of the company remains sharp as ever. Over 650 performances into its Broadway run, Ann Harada is still fresh as the delusional stepsister Charlotte with her show-stealing "Stepsister's Lament," while original ensemble member Stephanie Gibson comically shines in the featured role of Harada's endearingly oddball onstage sibling Gabrielle. As the cast delivers Douglas Carter Beane's quick-witted dialogue to an audience appreciative of its political inclinations, the magical quick-changes and production design elicit their due "oo"'s and "ah"'s from an adoring crowd getting every bit the fairy-tale experience they bargained for.