By Ande Jacobson
This summer, Foothill Music Theatre (FMT) is presenting the South Bay premiere of an exciting, fresh look at an old rags-to-riches story with its production of Cinderella. It’s still a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical adaptation of the French story, Cendrillon, ou la Petite Pantoufle de Verre, with all of the beloved songs. This 2013 revision finally took the show to Broadway for the first time and includes a modernized book by Douglas Carter Beane to go along with an updated orchestration. The show retains all of the charm and family-friendliness of the original television and Disney animated presentations while the latest changes make it more relevant to 21st century audiences.
This updated version has the important characters from the original Disney and television specials, although they have more depth than in previous incarnations:
- Ella – or Cinderella (Christina Lea) – isn’t just a pretty face caught in a tragic life with her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. She has a voice, and she is filled with kindness and compassion that helps others around her grow.
- Topher (Edward Clark) is far more than a handsome prince. He’s a hero, slaying dragons and giants when they threaten the kingdom. In this version, he’s also an orphan prince being misled by an evil advisor. Once his eyes are opened, he gives his subjects a voice and strikes back to rectify the wrongdoing that has been done in his name.
- Madame (Jasmine Johnson) is the evil stepmother whose conniving becomes her undoing.
- Gabrielle (Melissa Gialdini) is one of the not-so-evil stepsisters. In this incarnation, she’s got a big heart and is very conflicted about trying to cross her mother.
- Charlotte (Gwyneth Forrester) is the slightly-evil-but-really-just-inept stepsister. She’s aware of her shortcomings, but she tries to please her mother and go along with what is asked of her.
- Marie (Angela Ceseña) appears to be a crazy beggar woman, but in reality, she’s a beloved character who shows Ella just what is possible.
- Lord Pinkleton (Juan Castro) is the town crier, announcing when the prince is having a ball, and adding various commentary of the day.
In addition, some new characters in this incarnation add depth to the story:
- Sebastian (Vic Prosak) is the villain of the piece, misleading the prince for personal gain.
- Jean-Michel (Jomar Martinez) is a village activist working to raise awareness of the people’s plight.
Beyond the principals, a large ensemble provides the rest of the people of the village, and together they bring this enchanting story to life.
Milissa Carey directs this production. Carey joins choreographer Lee Ann Payne and music director Daniel Feyer to provide a breathtaking view into their fairy tale world. Their staging creates a seamless connection between the choreography, stage action, and even set movement throughout the production. Once or twice a guard is out of step, but the execution is so clean otherwise, that it’s not clear whether that is truly a miss or an intentional comic blip. The opening fight sequences and ballroom scenes are captivating and very well executed.
Carey’s use of the scripted fox and raccoon puppets as two of Ella’s forest friends are adorable as they show great personality bopping along to the music and reacting to Ella’s attention. They also transform smoothly into “mostly” human helpers while retaining their buoyant personalities.
Lea and Clark have nice stage chemistry and work well together. Their initial meeting in the forest shows that Ella and Topher are kind of heart, and hints at a mutual attraction. There’s a tenderness in their scenes together that makes their developing stage relationship very believable.
Johnson has wonderful comedic timing. Yes, her character is evil, but she shows devilish delight in her planning. Gialdini and Forrester are almost polar opposites as sisters. Gialdini, even when pressed by Madame, shows Gabrielle’s heart and softness. And she’s quite smitten with Jean-Michel, showing great delight in his causes. Her glee at the prospect of helping him at the soup kitchen is delicious. Forrester is complete comic relief throughout the show. Her character is horribly inept, and through Forrester’s actions and facial expressions, Charlotte clearly knows how outclassed she is by everyone around her.
Martinez is bubbly, humble, and quite nimble, and his character is a welcome addition to this new version of the show. He has some nice chemistry with Gialdini as their romance gently develops.
Ceseña has a nice transformation, going from what seems like a background character to taking command in a major leading role. Her bearing post transformation is more forthright and self-assured, yet she is still very kind and nurturing.
Prosak is a perfect villain, and he slyly consorts with his partner in crime in a very sleazy way.
Kuo-Hao Lo’s scenic design adds a wonderful dimension from the cottage in the forest that opens to show cozy living quarters, to the grand castle staircase upstage as a backdrop to the ball. Carey incorporates the set changes nicely into the stage action so that movement happens coincident with the scene progression keeping the story moving at a comfortable pace.
Michael Ramsaur’s lighting design helps focus the audience’s attention and provides elegant mood enhancement throughout the performance. The only momentary dead time occurred at the end of Act 1 waiting for the house lights to come up for intermission possibly due to a late light cue.
Lisa Rozman’s costume design works well overall. If audiences look too closely, they might notice some imperfections, but the general appearance fits the show. A few of the costumes, while appearing oddly bulky at times, also allow for some interesting on-stage transitions.
Sharon Peng’s wig designs also hit the period and mood well, enhancing the characters and adding nice color and texture to the mix. Charlotte’s wig is especially notable in terms of enhancing her character’s eccentricities. During the run, the wigs could use just a little more care and feeding between performances as some of the more elegant ones seem to be a tad more frazzled than they should be.
While the original orchestration of Cinderella was written for 27-32 players, this new version was written for 20 musicians. FMT streamlined the instrumentation even more and uses a lively 12-player pit for this run including Feyer directing from the keyboard. Even with this reduced instrumentation, the score sounds complete. The balance between orchestra and cast is excellent, and cast diction is crisp and clean on all of the vocals. The melodic and harmonic mix is rich and covers a wide dynamic range. A couple of vocal solos have some momentary support loss crossing a singer’s break, but overall, they are nicely done. On one of the more militaristic numbers, the drums seem a bit too pronounced, though not so much so that any vocals or other instrumentation are lost.
This production is appropriate for the entire family. The theater magic is plentiful, the story is charming, and it makes for an enjoyable evening’s (or afternoon’s) entertainment. There’s only one weekend left, so hurry before it’s gone.
Where: Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos, CA 94022
When: Continues through 4 August 2019, Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm.
See FMT’s Cinderella or call (650)949-7360 for tickets or more information.
(Photo credits: David Allen)
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Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (ABC Studios)
Cinderella (2015) (Plus Bonus Features)
Cinderella (Plus Bonus Content) – Animated