Undressing the part

National touring production of ‘Cinderella’ soars visually at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre

THEATER REVIEW

If only deciding what to wear to an important event were this easy.

When our heroine makes her first big transformation in “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” she shifts in a flash from peasant frock to a gorgeous gown and pair of glass slippers, all thanks to a nod from her fairy godmother.

Cinderella isn’t any different “inside” now that she’s wearing that elegant dress. But fashion isn’t so much about utility as it is about making a statement about one’s position in a hierarchical society. You don’t get to go the ball if you’re dressed in rags.

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Union of the crowns: Hayden Stanes, Tatyana Lubov and the company of ‘Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella.’ Photo / © Carol Rosegg

The moment, then, is important not only in terms of the storyline but also to the show’s underlying theme. And the national touring production, which opened Tuesday at the Saroyan Theatre, does it in spectacular fashion.

William Ivey Long’s Tony Award-winning costumes in the 2013 Broadway adaptation were highly praised at the time. I’d even watched on video the onstage moment when Cinderella’s dress transforms from peasant garb to exquisite garment in a matter of seconds. But to see the metamorphosis of Long’s creations live is downright thrilling, particularly the first big fairy-godmother-blessed moment, when Cinderella (Tatyana Lubov) swirls into a multi-layer white confection studded with jewels.

The costumes are one of the highlights of this bright and snappy production, which quite nicely captures the visual thrill and compelling choreography of the original Broadway version. Kid-friendly but with a contemporary spark that includes nods to social progressivism and woman empowerment, it’s a sweet and uplifting experience.

‘Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella,’ 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 17, Saroyan Theatre. $33-$73.

The idea of transformation extends to the very premise for this adaptation of “Cinderella.” The famed songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II originally wrote their version for a 1957 live television production starring Julie Andrews. The 2013 production kept the original songs (including such tunes as “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?”) and even threw in a couple of numbers cut from other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows (such as “Now is the Time” from “South Pacific”).

But the book was rewritten by Douglas Carter Beane, who added some new characters (a revolutionary named Jean-Michel), revised some key plot points and tossed in lots of modern (and near-snarky) humor.

The result is a fascinating hybrid that feels as if it straddles two eras. The song “Stepsister’s Lament,” for example, sung by an annoyed Charlotte (a standout Joanna Johnson), the more hardened and grumpy of Cinderella’s stepsisters, brings to mind Ado Annie’s old-fashioned, earnest griping in 1943’s “Oklahoma.” But then the Fairy Godmother (Leslie Jackson) lets loose with a crack about how you can find lots of crazy women in ball gowns these days, and the tone takes on more of a modern edge.

I think the two-eras thing works. Theater’s current generation has given us plenty of fractured fairy tales that take beloved stories and contemporize them with bawdy gags and topical humor. This “Cinderella” feels both traditional and fresh, and even if the political message about income inequality comes across as a little forced, the feminist angle is deft and satisfying.

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Twisted stepsister: Joanna Johnson and he company of ‘Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella.’ Photo / © Carol Rosegg

Lubov, as the title character, had a sweet and sturdy stage presence at Tuesday’s opening night performance at the Saroyan, though her vocals did not make much of an impression. The strongest overall performance came from Hayden Stanes as Prince Topher, who brought nuance to the role without overplaying it. Some of the acting was too broad for me, including Mimi Robinson’s Gabrielle (the other stepsister) and Chris Woods’ Jean-Michel. And Jackson played the Fairy Godmother more as an ingenue than a wise and matronly woman, which I don’t think worked as well.

More impressive is Lee Wilkins’ tour choreography (based on original choreography by Josh Rhodes), which gives us number after number of dancing that tumbles, glides and soars. (At one point the women in the ensemble, each wearing a huge, brightly colored, hoop-skirt gown, are lifted by their male partners, and the effect is like watching a squad of strikingly hued paratroopers descend to the ground.) There were even times that I found myself watching the elegant choreography in the background rather than the action in the foreground because it was so graceful and compelling.

And then there are Long’s costumes, which continually dazzle. From stepsister Charlotte’s large and garish, bright-pink continent of a ball gown to Cinderella’s beautiful gold dress in the second act, the costumes are a feast of colors, fabrics, textures and styles.

The underlying message of “Cinderella,” perhaps, is that within all of us is a princess (or a prince, or maybe even a modern combination of the two) just waiting to make an appearance. Do clothes help make that transformation? Of course. Are they everything? Not in this kingdom, at least. And that’s a happy thought.


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

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