Full disclosure: I love fairy tales. All of them. I always have, despite also being a girl who asked myself one day why Rapunzel couldn’t just make a ladder with all her own hair and escape the tower (and then Disney solved that with Tangled, so there we go). So imagine my delight when I found that Imagination Stage’s new musical adaptation of Cinderella is a mature, feminist, and beautifully self-aware retelling of the classic story, while still keeping the heart and soul of the fairy tales we know and love.
Reimagined by Alyn Cardarelli, with music and songs by Steve Goers, and directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer, this Cinderella sees our heroine (Awa Sal Secka) as a downtrodden but outspoken young woman, aware that there is so much more for the world to offer – and for her to offer the world – that is just out of her reach. Her dearest wish is for a pair of shoes so she can leave her stepfamily and go adventuring. Awa Sal Secka plays her with a strength and quiet resolve that is beautiful to watch. Cinderella is aided in her quest by Silverbird, the animal form of the Fairy Godmother (the wonderful Tracy Lynn Olivera), and a grumpy, sarcastic, cheese-loving Rat (Chris Stinson) who is turned human to help (to his great horror) and is hilariously excited by his newly-begotten opposable thumbs. Stinson and Olivera deftly manipulate the fantastic puppets (of which no designer was named in the program) that take the stage when their characters first appear as animals.
Evan Casey absolutely nails it as the Stepmother in turns both hilariously camp and deeply cruel and calculating, and is joined by Angeleaza Anderson and Amanda Leigh Corbett as the two ditzy Stepsisters, Temperance and Grace, respectively; with the three forming a delightful trio that counters Awa Sal Secka’s calm and graceful princess.
The action really begins when Cinderella single-handedly takes the lost Prince Jason (a dashing Jay Frisby) down with a broom. This is a girl who knows her swords, and there are several rousing fights staged throughout the play by Fight Choreographer Tuyet Thi Pham. Prince Jason is immediately smitten but is hindered by his long-suffering Valet, Wesley (a fantastically energetic and slapsticky Michael Wood), who has a secret he needs to protect at all costs.
The whole thing is delightfully silly, full of whimsy and magic, beautifully helped by William K. D’Eugenio and Paige Hathaway’s lighting and scene design, respectively. When you enter the house you’re greeted by hundreds of yellow fairy lights, surrounded by a sea of blue and a cozy-looking cottage under a proscenium that looks like a forest; sound design by Joe Payne adds to the magical, idyllic-feeling mood with classical music and birdsong. Ivania Stack’s costumes are also worth a mention – I won’t spoil the tricks, to keep the magic intact, but the animal-to-human and rags-to-gown transitions are absolutely wonderful, and the three brightest costumes belong to Casey, Anderson, and Corbett’s trio. Casey’s Stepmother costume is particularly reminiscent of the iconic Disney costume, and their costumes for the ball are of course ridiculously fun. Music Director Elisa Rosman and Choreographer Pauline Grossman have staged several spirited dances (the Pumpkin Carriage is particularly clever) and the songs are catchy and at times, very sweet. The songs weren’t listed, but I took extra enjoyment from a very swaggery and vibrant duet between Frisby’s Prince and Wood’s Wesley about responsibility and how to be a Prince.
I said before that this Cinderella is wonderfully self-aware and mature, and that’s wonderful to see in children’s and family theatre. Part of the fun of this adaptation lies in the moments when the characters recognize the parts of the typical fairy-tale tropes that fall flat (such as the magic only lasting until midnight) and try to work them out. There’s also a Mommie Dearest joke thrown in for the grownups, and it works. This awareness of the traditionally problematic plot devices gives the characters, particularly Cinderella and Jason, much more agency than they’ve traditionally gotten, and lets them find their way mostly on their own. It’s truly a joy to watch, no matter how young (or young at heart!) you are.
Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission. Recommended for ages 4+.
Cinderella plays through January 6, 2019, at Imagination Stage – 4908 Auburn Ave, in Bethesda, MD. Dates and showtimes vary. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (301) 280-1660, or purchase online.