One song, “My Cousin’s Cousin,” is representative of the fast, bright, resourceful entertainment found in “Ever After,” a world premiere musical by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich at Paper Mill Playhouse.
In the song, Danielle, whom her stepmother calls Cinderella (Margo Seibert), has to do some quick lying to retain the interest of a young man, Henry, she happens to meet in the woods near her home just as she is modeling one of her stepmother’s fancy dresses. Henry (James Snyder) is a prince and the heir apparent to France. Danielle, though well-born to a landed merchant, cannot admit to being a servant, so she makes up this ever more fanciful tale that proceeds in a “Who’s on First?” manner and escalates as Henry catches the riddling drift and follows suit.
The lyrics reveal Heisler’s unending verbal dexterity and almost limitless cleverness. They are part and parcel of a show that is filled with good, well-crafted songs and smart ripostes and jokes. “Ever After,” based on a 1998 movie that starred Drew Barrymore, is decidedly middle-of-the-road, but it is a welcome middle. Heisler and Goldrich have written an old-fashioned musical that tells a complex story with simple clarity and that features a variety of musical styles, each of which is appropriate to the moment and entertains intuitively. Goldrich’s music, while not having the emphatic wit of Heisler’s words, is generously melodic and harkens to a happier day of composition when songwriters concentrated on tune and aimed for sparkle without cliche.
Heisler and Goldrich’s work is not flawless. Some scenes come out of the blue, even a divertingly amusing number involving gypsies, and at least 20 minutes of the last half hour seems extraneous, or at least more efficiently achievable, and can be compacted or eliminated. These late sequences have some purpose, but Heisler and Goldrich seem to think the more songs the merrier, so they keep on writing, and the effect begins to feel more like delay than delight. Even a decent song, such as “Done,” in which Danielle and her stepmother (Christine Ebersole) have a crucial confrontation, can be sacrificed as the same effect could have been established in a briefer book scene.
It is not that you mind the length of “Ever After.” A full-blown musical is welcome in this era of brief takes when getting a show to 90 minutes requires padding, and “Ever After” always entertains. It’s just that the end is in sight, and the known outcome is so desired and so earned by all involved, including the audience, you want to get to it and pass over some unessential details. Oddly, some scenes from “Done” on, made the already two-hour “Ever After” seem padded and a tad convoluted, more so than it actually is. Heisler, Goldrich, and Paper Mill deserve a Broadway transfer on this piece and production, and the end of the show is where work should be considered and done before any move.
“Ever After” is a shrewd variation on the much-adapted Cinderella tale. In it, you see the relationship between Danielle and her father, the enthusiasm Danielle has at the prospect of having a new mother and two sisters (Mara Davi and Annie Funke), and the cruelty with which the young woman is treated after her father dies and her stepmother inherits the property. Deftly added are scenes that depict life in the French court of King Francis and Queen Marie (Charles Shaughnessy and Julie Halston), a more random, realistic, and romantic meeting between Cinderella and her prince, and extra concepts such as debtor’s prison, the bartering of humans, and the inclusion of Leonardo da Vinci (Tony Sheldon) as a master problem solver.
All that Heisler and Goldrich cook up is staged vibrantly and intelligently by Kathleen Marshall, who also choreographs. Her opening number, which shows the workaday world of a French village, and a second act dance that involves masks and geometry, “Is There Anything Leonardo Can’t Do?,” are especially bright and inventive. Then, of course, there’s all of the court pageantry, with Shaughnessy skipping in with a well-placed step or two.
Heisler, Goldrich, and Marshall do not aim for depth, even when a philosophical phrase from Thomas More’s “Utopia” is quoted. They look for the kind of grand, gentle, accessible entertainment of a yesteryear that should be more lauded than forgotten, and they find it without sacrificing an iota of intelligence or sensibility. “Ever After” is a worthy piece, a light romantic comedy that keeps you engaged and willing to go with it, even when gypsies make a sudden, and quite entertaining, entrance.
From an acting point of view, performances in “Ever After” run the gamut from Margo Seibert’s warm, deep sincerity and James Snyder’s ardor to Charles Shaughnessy’s blithe but effective cameo and Christine Ebersole’s tendency to play a line or moment more than an entire character. The mix doesn’t clash. “Ever After” can support the varying styles, but the actors who put forth the effort to create a complete, rounded character — Seibert, Snyder, Charl Brown as a head courtier, Fred Inkley as Danielle’s father, and John Hillner as a profiteer and villain — give Marshall’s production additional texture that escalates the engaging to the engrossing.
Mara Davi keeps her role as Cinderella’s pretty, haughty, spoiled stepsister on a cartoon level, but it works. There’s no depth for Davi to play, so she makes the most of her chances as a comic whose character elicits boos but whose performance rates cheers. Julie Halston earns points for playing Queen Marie as if she were your neighbor who can just, by chance, send you to the guillotine. The middle class take as a realistic mother and luncheon partner works amusingly. Shaughnessy is fun as the petulant king, Sheldon smiling and wise as da Vinci, Funke funny in a 21st century as the other stepsister, and Liz McCartney, Nick Corley, and Andrew Keenan-Bolger fine as Cinderella’s fellow servants. Sean Martin Hingston has excellent bravado as the gypsy leader.
Margo Seibert is the true star. She does all that is asked of her in an intelligent, natural manner. Overlooked last year as Adrian in “Rocky,” Seibert is a commanding presence whose musical and acting skills are at a high level. James Snyder matches her in intensity and talent as Henry. You feel the chemistry in a way that makes Henry’s one dismissal of Danielle seem ludicrous. Charl Brown is a delight who takes a functionary character and makes it into a bright spot of which you want to see more.
Christine Ebersole gives a pair of interlocking performances. She uses her prodigious acting skills sparingly and sporadically, tossing off mean taunts and laugh lines for their comic value but only establishing a full character when there’s dramatic purpose for the scene. It’s then you see the brilliant Ebersole, but only then.
Derek McLane’s set is smart and functional. Jess Goldstein’s costume range from gorgeous to fun, but it is hairdresser Leah J. Loukas and makeup artist Brian Strumwasser who have the real fun.
Ever After, Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn. Through Sunday, June 21, Wednesday through Sunday, 7 p.m. and Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 1:30 p.m. $36 to $127. 973-376-4343 or www.papermillorg.