Anything is Possible in “Cinderella” at The Bushnell

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Ella (Kaitlyn Davidson) and Prince Topher (Andy Huntington Jones) share a kiss at the ball.                                                                                                                                      Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

Impossible things are happening every day and in the magical reboot of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” arriving in your not-so-standard pumpkin to golden carriage hybrid at The Bushnell for the week.

This is not your average “Cinderella.” The rewritten book by Douglas Carter Beane (Tony nominated for “Sister Act”) infuses the revamped musical with more humor and social morals. It adapts to modern comedy with zest and social consciousness that puts a twist on the classical fairy tale and makes it more relatable for adult and children of our time. It’s about more than a commoner winning over a prince with the magic of glamour, gowns and glass slippers. It’s about being kind, believing in yourself, making everyone’s voices heard and each individual’s role in working toward the greater good.

Prince Charming is called Topher (Christopher in the original Rodgers and Hammerstein version), Cinderella is first introduced as Ella before her stepmother dubs her Cinderella, the fairy godmother exists in Ella’s world first as apparent crazy beggar woman Marie and one of the stepsisters, Gabrielle, is actually very nice.

“The whole tone of it is very different. It still takes place in a fairy tale,” Andy Huntington Jones (Prince Topher) said. “But the sensibility is for a modern sense of humor. ‘Cinderella’ isn’t really a funny story, but there are funny things that happen that you don’t really realize are humorous when you see it in a cartoon…. Also the theme is different. It’s not about a makeover. It’s about kindness being more important than the makeover.”

“And finding who you are and confidence in yourself and believing that you are capable of anything you put your mind to,” Kaitlyn Davidson (Ella) added.

Before the show even started, the audience sees a majestic layered forest in front of the soft purple glow of a sunset backdrop. You’re drawn into a mesmorizing fairy tale land with an “Into the Woods” air about it. The set choreography was fluid, with beautiful pieces from trees and Ella’s home to the castle staircase anchored on wheels smoothly maneuvered on and off stage. The ensemble remained active during set changes, so transitions flowed scene into scene with no awkward or long delays. It happened naturally. Every element was intricately designed and breathtaking, particularly the golden carriage and twinkle light horses appearing in misty fog.

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Eric Anthony Johnson (Fox/footman), Kaitlyn Davidson (Ella) and Chip Abbott (Raccoon/driver) head to the palace for the ball.        Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

If it wasn’t enough being wowed by the set at the get-go, I was blown away by the magic of the wardrobe changes. Davidson’s quick changes to transform from Ella in rags to an elegant princess are the fastest and flashiest you’ll ever see. They happen right before your eyes. If you blink you’ll miss it. I rarely ever consider costumes as dance, but this was sheer fashion choreography. With a flip of the fabric, a twirl and tug of a curtain, suddenly Ella is a stunning ball-going beauty.

“It’s still a work in progress,” she quipped, adding that when she first took over as Cinderella, she had a four-hour day when she just worked on the costume transformations “over and over and over again because there are many pieces.”

She said that sometimes other people were involved in the costume changes, but “mostly magic.” I bet you could watch the transformation scenes several times in a row and still not be able to figure out how she did it.

“It is very choreographed. There is a time for everything,” Davidson said.

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Eric Anthony Johnson (Fox/footman), Liz McCartney (Marie/fairy godmother) and Kaitlyn Davidson (Ella) after the transformation sequence in wardrobe. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

That brings me to something else that’s magical in this show. The Venetian glass slipper. It’s sparkle was eye-catching mid-Orchestra and it was remarkable to see Davidson run down a large staircase and let on of the slippers drop off her foot and stick with precision on one of the stair. She did this without hesitation or stopping her motion, continuing to run without tripping.

“You know, I’m not going to lie, I, knock on wood, have not yet tripped down the stairs, but there have been others who have,” Davidson said. “It’s definitely a possibility for sure.”

The glass slipper is one of the most iconic symbols of “Cinderella,” much like the ruby, or silver, slipper in “The Wizard of Oz.” The reworked book recognizes that and utilizes it as comical device, an inside joke with the audience. Everyone expects Cinderella to lose her shoe, a bread crumb for the prince to find her. So when she runs back after the ball and retrieves her shoe before intermission, that’s unexpected. And then the lights come up and you’re left wondering, now what?

An older woman next to me was astounded, even upset, that Cinderella ran off with her glass slipper. “How will the prince find her now?” she asked me right at intermission and when I returned to my seat. That was all she wanted to talk about. I have to admit, I was with her, slightly, but not as passionately, concerned about how the prince could find her. The best answer I could give the woman was that maybe it was a twist. In a way, it was. It was one of the ways this version of the show presented a fresh take on the story and kept you guessing a little.

“Sometimes people think it’s a mistake or that we’ve messed up,” Jones said, noting that it’s written into the script and that the playwright gives Cinderella more control over her destiny instead of just magically being transformed into being pretty and accidentally leaving a shoe. “She’s responsible for not a whole lot in the typical version of ‘Cinderella.’ But in this version, without her willpower, none of this would happen for her. So, it’s a message to be kind and that you’re also in control of your own destiny.”

In this version, the prince also throws a banquet to find Cinderella, that isn’t part of all the versions, however it was part of the original fairy tale written by French author Charles Perrault.

Davidson wouldn’t say when asked if the shoes were actually glass, but the show’s secrets heighten the magic. My only regret in my interview was not asking if I could hold the slipper myself. It would have been like touching history. Davidson said there’s a joke about walking on glass slippers in the show.

“My shoes are surprisingly comfortable,” Davidson laughed.

I was impressed with Davidson’s beautifully pure and clear voice that was music royalty in the show even though she was playing a commoner.

Her co-star, Jones as Prince Topher, didn’t have a particularly operatic or booming voice, so it blended into the choral numbers rather than standing in the forefront, however, it was pleasant to listen to, clean and controlled. When you can have tonal fullness while singing quietly and varying the dynamics intentionally for style, that takes a lot of musical awareness and thoughtfulness beyond just singing loud. But what you might lose in that quietness in a space as big as The Bushnell is audience comprehension of the lyrics. That is consistently an issue I notice acoustically in the space, but it wasn’t as much of an issue for me this time sitting mid-orchestra.

Huntington plays a more boyish, “adorkable” prince who is down-to-earth. I love it when he declares in a hilarious sword salute after a serious moment of victory that he’s seeking his purpose. He wants something more fulfilling than slaying giants and dragons. His naivety makes him more real and genuine. In most “Cinderella” tales, it’s focused on her and her growth, but the prince grows with her as a person to become a stronger leader.

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Prince Topher (Andy Huntington Jones) and Ella (Kaitlyn Davidson) dance at the ball.                                                                                                                                                Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

I enjoyed Lord Pinkleton (Chauncey Packer), who was the communicator between the palace and people, particularly when he’s announcing the prince’s full name, which includes multiple middle names (Herman?).

Fun fact: in real life, Huntington, the prince, is married to one of the understudies for Ella, Audrey Cardwell.

Aymee Garcia has a brassy voice that matched her sassy nature as Charlotte, the mean step sister. Her voice was much more character-oriented than impressively belty, but it was powerful nonetheless. Her mean moments, like when she insults the Topher during her dance with him before realizing he’s the prince, give us comedy in the juxtaposition of her intent or mood to how it plays as funny to the audience.

Kimberly Faure’s Gabrielle is memorable as the kind stepsister, who loves a poor social activist named Jean-Michel who her mom hates, and helps Cinderella. Davidson said that’s alluded to in the original French fairy tale. In that version, her step-family calls her “Cinderbum” and one of the stepsisters calls her “Cinderella” to be a little nicer, she said.

Faure has a knack for dry humor with an intentionally low, monotone voice at times, hitting the jokes home with the contrast of her emotion level to the hilarity. You feel really badly for her when she is wronged by her mother, Madame. She plays her character ditzy, but it turns out she is also one of the smarter and more perceptive women in her family, which she proves when she is the first to figure out Cinderella was the one the prince was enamored by at the ball.

It’s interesting how this version has two step sisters who are different and aren’t an alliance of evil. It added more character depth and harkens back to older versions where one of the stepsisters is kind and one of the protagonists.

David Andino is ever-so serious as Jean-Michel in his commitment to social justice, but his fumbling, awkwardness as he tries to shout protests to ears that aren’t listen makes him a form of lovable comic relief. He is the one who brings it to everyone’s attention that the poor are having their lands taken to him. He actually helps Cinderella play a role in shaping politics in their community when she tells the prince Jean-Michel’s message, the first time he’s ever heard this is happening and that his kingdom might be responsible. Jean-Michel gives her the book that holds the answer for how the prince can make things right.

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Ella (Kaitlyn Davidson) holds the book Jean-Michel gave her. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

She gets Topher to talk to the people, giving him a voice and making others heard. That’s where Cinderella becomes more than a pretty princess and plays a stronger female role in changing things for the better.

It’s also Cinderella who teaches the kingdom about kindness over her stepmother’s ways of ridicule.

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Ella (Kaitlyn Davidson) and the townspeople dance in jubilation when they learn the prince is throwing a ball to meet his future bride.                                               Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

Blair Ross plays Madame as a mostly evil social climber and she really gives you anger when she rips the coat of Cinderella’s father, her one belonging to remember him by. Her social standing with the prince’s advisor, Sebastian is also interesting and that was the one part of the book I didn’t understand. How did she suddenly become in good standing with the palace and what is her prior relationship to the advisor? He speaks of a grand plan, but I never really understood his plan, the purpose and how people losing their land ties into it.

I did also wonder how the prince couldn’t initially find Cinderella, given he meets her at her house! Granted, it’s not when she’s all dolled up and he doesn’t know where she is, but she is beautiful in and out and needn’t be ashamed to tell him her name or wear her regular clothes in his presence. I find it unrealistic her family and the prince wouldn’t recognize her face, but such is the suspension of disbelief of a fairy tale!

Ross does have love buried within her, which surfaces when Cinderella is singing to her and her stepsisters about how she “imagines” the ball she supposedly never attended. I was surprised to see Madame smiling and actually listening, rather than conspiring.

Liz McCartney is lovable as crazy Marie, with an incredible wardrobe transformation from cloak to dazzling fairy godmother, with a lovely voice, as well. I found it fascinating how this version shows us the fairy godmother as a beggar woman first and not just as a magical wish-granting sorceress. It makes her real and she serves as everyone’s fairy godmother, only revealing her magic to help Cinderella, who is the only one who shows her genuine kindness. You don’t see that in many renditions of the show.

Movement is an important aesthetic element of the show. Dance is scenery that accentuates the gorgeous costumes. The choreography was on point. It’s where Davidson shines and is even more joyously expressive. She’s danced since she was three and it shows in her every step and gesture. She’s dainty on her feet even when she runs across the stage and excels in the dances. The ballroom dance scene is graceful and beautifully done. I also like the scene with the commoners dancing with excitement over their invitation to the prince’s ball.

I also enjoyed the fox and raccoon thanks to the puppetry of Rachel Fairbanks, Lauren Luckacek, Michael Callahan and Chip Abbott as the animals. Callahan and Abbot also played the footman and carriage driver, the human forms of the fox and raccoon. They were incredible dancers in a beautifully choreographed chase scene that serves to gradually morph them back into their woodland creature selves, the puppets.

“The classic Rodgers and Hammerstein music mixed with the new morals of the show and the wit and humor of this new script, I feel like it’s a complete package and you can bring your kids, or if you don’t have kids, you can bring yourself. And no matter who comes, you’re going to have a good time. I feel like that’s what we’re finding at the stage door. A lot of people will come and tell us, ‘I came begrudgingly because I love my family and I had a good time when I came,'” Jones said.

Straight from the prince’s mouth.

This is a much deeper version of Cinderella with a lot of character development and isn’t just the cartoon you might be thinking of when you hear “Cinderella.”

Impossible things are happening every day. And it’s magical when you see those moments on the stage. Don’t worry, you’ll be out by midnight, so you won’t want to miss this ball of a musical at the Bushnell.

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Andy Huntington Jones (Prince Topher) and Kaitlyn Davidson (Ella) perform the dance sequence at the ball at the palace.                                                   Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

The show is directed by Mark Brokaw, choreographed by Josh Rhodes, music directed by Bruce Barns and musically adapted by David Chase (the music director/arranger for NBC’s live stage productions of “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan.” Anna Louizos oversaw the stunning set design and William Ivey Long designed the fabulous Tony Award-winning costumes.

For more information on show times and ticket prices, visit bushnell.org.

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