Music & lyrics by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Douglas Carter Beane. Sydney Lyric till Jan 22, 2023
Oh, can we just not?! Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing particularly bad about Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, it’s just utterly, resolutely average. And it clearly cost a lot of money to make something so… dull.
There’s a lot to unpack here so let’s start with the good. The performances are pretty much flawless. Shubshri Kandiah is a beautiful and charming Ella (don’t get me started on the explanation for why she’s called Cinderella), and together with Ainsley Melham as Prince Topher they form a charming and winning couple at the core of this circus. Vocally, the show is a powerhouse. These songs sound wonderful, crisp and clear with classic R&H melodies.
The ensemble is also busting it out in big “Broadway” style – big voice, big dance routines etc. And the supporting cast milk their scenes for every ounce of fun they can while playing big enough for the crowds across the harbour to see them. There’s nothing subtle here, it’s not that kind of show.
Costumes? Luscious. Staging? Well, big… but not impressive TBH. Special effects? I’ll get to that in a minute. It’s clear a lot of thought and work went into every aspect of this show to get it stage-ready. Maybe that’s why it feels so generic and lifeless?
We all know the story, right? Well, think again! To bring Cinderella into the modern age, the story has had a rewrite to downplay the sexism, beef up the token social commentary, and turn the romantic fairytale into a sanitised, forgettable rom-com. Isn’t poverty terrible? But the stupid poor people can be easily distracted with a royal wedding! Poor Cinderella, unloved and overworked? But don’t worry, she’s actually a feisty, independent woman who stands up for those worse off! Except when the music starts because the new characterisation has to fit around the existing music and lyrics! Oh and apparently we can still laugh at fat people, as one of the step-sisters gets treated like the butt of the joke for her size on more than one occasion.
I at least expected to see some dazzling, theatrical effects when it came to Cinderella’s transformation from dirty housemaid to immaculate debutant but even here I was let down. The costume reveals were laboured (in the case of the fairy-godmother you can see the enormous bulk of her fairy-dress hiding comically under a hump of brown rags on her back like she was Frankenstein’s deformed assistant). The carriage reveal was unspectacular and at least they didn’t even try when it came to turning mice into horses – they simply threw the mouse props off stage and wheeled on some horses covered in fairy-lights. We’ve seen better tricks in both Mary Poppins and Harry Potter recently.
It’s the whiplash between Douglas Carter Beane’s contemporary book and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic music that throws the evening off-kilter. The rewritten second act, which diverts from the fairytale the most, left me unsatisfied. It dilutes the emotional joy of the original. It reminded me of seeing Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s recent, modernised Cinderella in London (being renamed Bad Cinderella for Broadway to avoid confusion) which also desperately tried to rework the problematic elements and similarly lost the emotional thread of the plot.
Of course, when the orchestra starts to swirl, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s music is allowed to run the evening, the production wins you back over. When the beautiful couple starts to dance, and the score is soaring – it’s hard to resist the awww’s.
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella is as beige as theatre gets. There are great things about it – if you love the music it’s worth buying a ticket, the cast are terrific etc, but ultimately it’s a big-budget exercise in theatrical wallpaper – you’ll have forgotten it by morning. If you want to see fairy-tales on stage, and a superior version of Cinderella, then book to see Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods at Belvoir in 2023 instead!
Leave a Reply