Glitzy ‘Cinderella,’ Colonial light up the holidays

Lukas James Miller and Kaitlyn Mayse (in white) and the cast of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” .© Carol Rosegg

BOSTON – The national touring production of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” has arrived at the Emerson Colonial Theatre at just the right time of year.

Theater patrons are still re-discovering the grandeur of the grande dame of Boston theaters after an extended closure and subsequent renovations and it doesn’t hurt that the theater is literally just across the street from a spectacular Christmas light display on the Boston Common.

Many of us grew up with the Disney animated film stuck in our mind, but the stage musical authored by the iconic team of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/book writer Oscar Hammerstein II took a different approach.

They unveiled their stage musical in 1957. It was written with television in mind, and premiered on CBS as a showcase for Julie Andrews.

A 1965 TV version starred Lesley-Anne Warren, and singer Brandy Norwood took the role in the 1997 telefilm, with Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother.

It became a staple of regional theaters and finally made it to Broadway in 2013, with an updated book from playwright Douglas Carter Beane framing the original story; it is that production this show is based on.

Kaitlyn Mayse and Lukas James Miller in “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” Photo: Carol Rosegg

The new book by Beane – Hammerstein write the original book – offers some topical political humor, none so pointed or harsh as to be offensive, but enough so that the adults in the audience should be entertained.

The good news is that updated musical still qualifies as a theatrical spectacle, with gilded coach and steeds, lovely gowns, and acrobatic dancers even though there were some technical bumps and bruises at the recent opening night, not uncommon in a first show at a new theater.

In this update, the King and Queen have been eliminated, making Prince Topher (Lukas James Miller) the ruler of the realm, now an orphan, putting him roughly on the same plane as Ella (Kaitlyn Mayse), the young woman whose father has died, leaving her under the heavy thumb of her step-mother, Madame (Sarah Smith), and Madame’s daughters Gabrielle (Natalie Girard) and Charlotte (Joanna Johnson).

Mayse’s Ella – eventually to become the Cinderella of the – is spunky, caring and generous, and a fine singer. And socially aware, to boot, not just concerned with gowns and glass slippers.

Madame is a social climber and golddigger of the first order, determined that her daughters burrow their way into the heart of Prince Topher. But Gabrielle has her heart set on Jean-Michel (Nick Casaula), a character created by Beane, a social justice warrior and firebrand determined to make sure the prince doesn’t become a demonic despot, but an enlightened ruler.

Johnson as the looks-challenged Charlotte is given the thankless job of providing comic relief, albeit doing the job with skill and aplomb.

Prime Minister Sebastian (Christopher Swan) is in the habit of running things for the prince, not letting him know what he is doing to the peasants in the prince’s name. He’s eager to keep pulling the wool over his eyes so everybody in the castle – especially himself – can keep living large at the expense of the downtrodden. The prince, meanwhile, is pretty ditzy, a good-natured benevolent goofball who isn’t very hard to fool, at least for most of the show.

Fairy Godmother Marie (silken-voiced Zina Ellis), complete with the requisite gilded coach and steeds, is aided not by Walt Disney’s squeaky mice but by a fox (Beth Anderson) and a raccoon (Kaylene Snarsky)..

William Ivey Long’s gowns are show-stoppers, as is the stage magic that allows Cinderella to transform from human dustbin to Miss America right onstage.

The music rolls off the R&H assembly line and while it is far from the famed duo’s best score, there’s nary a turkey in the bunch, and among the best are “It’s Possible,” “Ten Minutes Ago” and “Now is the Time.” 

Beane has crafted the requisite happy ending with a nod to the importance of social justice, even in a long-ago fairy tale world.

And, after the happy ending, there’s another show that’s free just across the street.

“Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. New book by Douglas Carter Beane. Original book by Hammerstein. Directed by Gina Rattan. Originally directed by Mark Brokaw. Presented by Ambassador Theatre Group at Emerson Colonial Theatre, Boston, through Dec. 30.

(L-R) Tyler Eisenreich, Zina Ellis and Kaitlyn Mayse in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. © Carol Rosegg