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Review: ‘Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella’ at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center

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It’s anyone’s guess what the late Oscar Hammerstein would make of it, but we are now getting our first close look at Oscar’s modest Eisenhower-era TV musical Cinderella all buffed up and retooled for millennials.

Hayden Stanes (The Prince Topher) and Tatyana Lubov (Ella). Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Hayden Stanes (Prince Topher) and Tatyana Lubov (Ella). Photo by Carol Rosegg.

This 2013 hybrid stage adaptation, known as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, had a trial run on Broadway and is now making a cross-country road tour. It is currently stopped in Baltimore as the opening attraction of the 2016-17 season at the 102-year-old Hippodrome Theatre.

Much of what was changed in the new book by Douglas Carter Beane (Lysistrata Jones, Xanadu) seems aimed at making millennials feel more comfortable with what they are seeing.

The prince here is brave enough to slay fairytale demons, for instance, but he is haunted by inner doubts (“Me, Who Am I?”). While he is next in line to be king, his parents are nowhere to be seen, relieving him of all that nasty pressure to find a wife and produce grandchildren. The only thing missing is the notion of him living contentedly down in their basement. Oh, wait …

Everything changes one day in the forest when the prince (who prefers to go by the name Topher) meets a poor country lass named (Cinder)Ella, who is in utter servitude to her stepmother and two overbearing stepsisters. Well, they aren’t that cruel, really. They are just struggling with their own issues.

The loose cannon in the kingdom is a young “firebrand” social-justice warrior named Jean-Michel, who is agitating against the basic unfairness of wealth distribution in that storybook land.

So it goes. It’s fully fifteen minutes into the show before we hear the first of the immortal Richard Rodgers melodies as (Cinder)Ella sings of the consolation she finds “In My Own Little Corner.” At the Hippodrome, Tatyana Lubov gives a sweet and practiced delivery of the song without really commanding much sympathy or devotion from us.

Hayden Stanes carries off  the role of Prince Topher with some distinction, turning yet another “amiable dunce” of a leading man into something with a modicum of romantic heft. Stanes’s performance of “Ten Minutes Ago” during the big royal ball sequence ends Act One with the biggest swell of applause all evening.

The cast. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The cast. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Running away with her comic role as the chubby and peevish stepsister, Charlotte, is newcomer Joanna Johnson. It doesn’t hurt that she gets the show’s best novelty song, “Stepsister’s Lament,” all to herself (with a little harmonic support from the girls of the chorus). As the other stepsister, Mimi Robinson is proficient but only emerges from Johnson’s shadow momentarily with her sweet rendition of “A Lovely Night.”

The best musical comedy voice all evening belongs to Leslie Jackson as Ella’s undercover “fairy godmother,” Marie. Her singing of “Impossible” and “It’s Possible” are early vouchers for a promise that she later fulfills with her big solo delivery of “There’s Music in You.”

Chris Woods as the comical revolutionary Jean-Michel and Sarah Primmer as the not-so-horrid stepmother are both as strong as their non-descript roles allow them to be. Ryan M. Hunt makes a suitably articulate court officer as Sebastian.

There is much dancing in this show, most of it by soldiers in armor and by happy villagers. The synchronized moves by Choreographer Lee Wilkins could use more drilling in spots, but for the most part keeps the show lively and colorful.

Tour Director Gina Rattan has been blessed by the Scenic Design of Anna Louizos. The forest cottages, castle archways and most notably that star-strewn palace ballroom are enough to fire the imagination. The Costume Designs of William Ivey Long, on the other hand, never seem to go far enough in defining the characters inside them.

Charlie Reuter conducts the live orchestra with aplomb, keeping the focus on those wonderfully crafted Rodgers & Hammerstein songs.

I was not converted to the cause of this new adaptation. There probably should have been a subtitle added to alert people of the changes: Cinderella: The Millennial Edition, for example. But if this is not exactly the enchanting fairytale that the masters set out to tell some 60 years back, it does provide good entertainment for kids and a reason for adults to relive all those golden-era songs again.

Running Time: About two and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella plays though November 6, 2016 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 North Eutaw Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online.

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