To see one very small pumpkin in the center of the stage suddenly become a very large pumpkin in the blink of an eye is an act of magic. But then to see that pumpkin replaced by a very grand golden coach pulled by a team of prancing horses amid a blaze of electrical fireworks is, indeed, more magical. But what is Cinderella to do about that house-cleaning schmata she is wearing and what of her hair that is piled high into a rat’s nest? Not to worry when there’s fairy godmother with a flair for haute couture on the premises. Smudge-faced Cinderella confidently runs to the coach. In the next blink of an eye, she is transformed head to toe into a vision of radiant loveliness. Her golden hair is softly cascading to her shoulders and she has just been poured into a stunning white tulip-tiered gown as the curtain falls on Act I.
No one on opening night it seems needed to be coaxed into the mirth of a melodic kingdom that director Gabriel Barre has so cleverly re-considered for his delightful staging of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s "Cinderella" at the Paper MIll Playhouse.
No one suggests that Cinderella ranks among the greatest in the R&H canon. Nevertheless it is a beautiful score. Without being campy or remotely childish, this is a version adapted for the stage by Tom Briggs (from the original teleplay by Robert L. Freedman) that has been craftily scripted for contemporary ears. The implanted comedy reigns supreme in Barre’s hands. Commanding the stage with an infectious energy in an otherwise small role is Stanley Wayne Mathis, as Lionel, the Prince’s royal steward, proving there are no small roles.
Puppetry is a highlight of this production, deployed with wit and finesse in the likes of Cinderella’s favorite fat cat, who becomes a coachman (James Buller); four hilariously exuberant white mice, who become horses (Ron DeSteffano, Jason Robinson, Dante Russo, and Jason Weston); and a dove (David Tankersley on roller blades), who becomes a footman.
Musical theater buffs will notice that "The Sweetest Sounds," the first song you hear in this version, is actually lifted from "No Strings," another R&H musical. And as sweetly as it is sung by Cinderella (Angela Gaylor) and Prince Christopher (Paolo Montalban) soon after they literally bump into each other in the village square, it never aspires to be more than melodic padding. Because Christopher is dressed like a commoner, Cinderella doesn’t know she has just met the prince in this neat bit of exposition. Gaylor, who was most recently seen as Anne in the Tony award-winning revival of "La Cage Aux Folles," sings winsomely and affects a refreshingly spunky demeanor as an unusually determined Cinderella. Montalban, who played Prince Charming in ABC/Disney’s TV version of "Cinderella," has what it takes to sweep a girl off her feet in addition to a fine tenor voice.
‘Boys and Girls Like You and Me," which was dropped from R&H’s first collaboration, "Oklahoma," serves as a wistful, if also totally irrelevant, duet for the otherwise particularly well-matched and unexpectedly compatible King (Larry Keith) and Queen (Joy Franz). Speaking of joy, what a pleasure to have Keith and Franz characterized as an altogether endearing royal couple whose only desire is to see their son have as happy a marriage as theirs. We are as eager to respond to their romantic feelings as we already have for Cinderella and the Prince in the quizzical "Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful."
As the plot is so familiar as to defy repeating, let it be said that the romantic wishes of Cinderella and Christopher remain timeless, and to be sure, fulfilled. Time has, however, allowed for color-blind casting, a concept that follows the advice of one of the songs, "It’s Possible." In this optimistic light, the fairy godmother (played hip and with plenty of sass by African-American Suzzanne Douglas) proves to Cinderella that anything is possible. What a terrific idea it is to have an especially beautiful fairy godmother envisioned as the protective spirit of Cinderella’s mother who died when she was a child.
With a handsome prince who is Asian and one stepsister (played with laugh-provoking klutziness by African-American Janelle Anne Robinson) and the other stepsister (played with clueless abandon by white Jen Cody), it opens up the kind of speculation that never entered the minds of the Brothers Grimm. And peering through her stunningly garish get-ups Nora Mae Lyng, as the mean stepmother, bristles with every color of the rainbow. Here is one racially-mixed magical kingdom whose only problem with color might be deciding which one of designer Pamela Scofield’s brilliantly colored and whimsically patterned costumes will outdo another. Jennifer Paulson Lee’s choreography provides some breezy and unpretentious divertissements. And James Youmans’ minimalist yet striking scenic designs include a storybook cut-out village, a gold-columned ballroom, and Cinderella’s home, where the mice are friendlier than family. Here is a family-friendly wish-fulfilling Cinderella that delivers "A Lovely Night" and for some a matinee.
Originally produced for television in 1957, starring Julie Andrews in the title role, various stage adaptations of Cinderella began appearing in 1961, but never one on Broadway. The New York City Opera produced it 1993 and most recently in 2004 with Eartha Kitt as the Fairy Godmother, a role in which she has toured. Although a crude kinescope version of the live 1957 telecast remains, most viewers are familiar with the 1965 version with Leslie Ann Warren and the 1997 version with Brandy.
Cinderella, through December 4, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. $68 to $19. 973-376-4343 or www.papermill.org.