NSMT’s ‘Cinderella’ is a story, spectacle for our time

Meadow Nguy (Ella), Stephen Brower (Topher), and the cast of ‘Cinderella” at North Shore Music Theatre thru July 24. Photo©Paul Lyden

By Rich Fahey

BEVERLY – The North Shore Music Theatre isn’t superstitious and doesn’t harbor a grudge, and that’s a good thing.

A devastating fire during a run of the musical “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” in the summer of 2005 temporarily closed the theater for several months, forced expensive repairs and renovations, some not covered by insurance,  and set off a course of events that ended with the theater closing in 2009 and declaring bankruptcy.

It stayed closed until present owner Bill Hanney bought it out of bankruptcy and re-opened it in July 2010.

Truth be told, this “Cinderella” now at NSMT through July 24 is a new adaptation that premiered on Broadway in 2013 and passed through Boston in 2018.

Tregoney Shepherd as Marie, the fairy godmother, in ‘Cinderella” at North Shore Music Theatre thru July 24. Photo©Paul Lyden

It features a new book by Douglas Carter Beane (“The Little Dog Laughed”) that eliminates a few characters and is smart, sassy and wickedly funny, with a social conscience and more than a few bon mots for the adults to savor.

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/original book writer Oscar Hammerstein II took a different road with this work, first unveiling their musical in 1957 with television in mind, and it 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.

The good news is that this updated musical still qualifies as a theatrical spectacle, with gilded coach and steeds, a raccoon and fox becoming footmen, lovely gowns, and acrobatic dancers. And, on two occasions, Cinderella (Meadow Nguy) doffing her rags for beautiful gowns right on stage, changing from a human dustbin to Miss America.

In this update, the King and Queen have been eliminated, making Prince Topher (Stephen Brower) the ruler of the realm, now an orphan, putting him roughly on the same plane as Ella (Nguy), the young woman whose father has died, leaving her under the heavy thumb of her step-mother, Madame (Jujubee), and Madame’s daughters Gabrielle (Mychal Phillips) and Charlotte (Jaelle Laguerre).

Jujubee as Madame, the wicked stepmother, in ‘Cinderella” at North Shore Music Theatre thru July 24. Photo©Paul Lyden

Ella – eventually to become the Cinderella of the title – 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 gold digger of the first order, determined that her daughters burrow their way into the heart of Prince Topher. Alas, JuJubee is often wooden in the role. Gabrielle, meanwhile, has her heart set on Jean-Michel (Todd Buonopane), 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.

Laguerre as the looks-challenged Charlotte is given the job of providing comic relief, and relishes it, doing the job with skill and aplomb.

Prime Minister Sebastian (Medford native Kevin B. McGlynn) 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.

Dwayne P. Mitchell is front and center as Lord Pinkleton, Sebastian’s second-in-command and herald for all important events, sort of a royal town crier. At one point, he announces the prince is having a banquet and then quips “I’ll be back later with local news and sports.”

Fairy Godmother Marie (Tregoney Shepherd), complete with the requisite gilded coach and steeds, is aided not by Walt Disney’s squeaky mice but by a fox (Jamie Askey, John Zamborsky) and raccoon (Briana Fallon, Brett Pederson).

Director and choreographer Kevin P. Hill has excelled wearing both hats since he became NSMT’s artistic director, and here he dazzles with the production numbers and makes sure the performers mine the humor in Beane’s book.

The original costume designs by Travis M. Grant are show-stoppers, and the production values are up to NSMT’s high standards, including Kyle Dixon’s scenic design, Corey Whittemore’s lighting, Don Hanna’s sound, and music direction by Milton Granger.

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. This “Cinderella” is a story and spectacle for our time.

The North Shore Music Theatre production of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. New book by Douglas Carter Beane. Original book by Hammerstein. Directed and choregraphed by Kevin P. Hill. At the North Shore Music Theatre through March 24. Nsmt.org.

Jaelle Laguerre (Charlotte) and the cast of ‘Cinderella” at North Shore Music Theatre thru July 24. Photo©Paul Lyden