Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Opera Australia and John Frost)
QPAC, Lyric Theatre
August 5 – September 3
Opera Australia’s production of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” is glorious from its very start as in the village square, a Town Crier proclaims, to the delight of the ladies of the land, that ‘The Prince Is Giving a Ball’ to celebrate his birthday. Though there is no real standout number, the musical’s soundtrack is glorious and easy-on-the-ear, filled as it is with recognisable Rogers and Hammerstein type melodies and lyrics, and Anna Louizos’ set design is superb, featuring slick transitions through scenes the sometimes include animal hard puppets poking out during song and dance numbers.
The Tony Award winning Broadway musical isn’t the Cinderella story we know from the 1950 Disney animated film, but instead a musical originally written expressly for a 1957 television special by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Though its story is still a little shallow and its themes perhaps questionable, the fairy tale has been fleshed out with twists and turns, and a more modern sensibility centred on the idea of kindness and the political ideals of having every voice be heard. Thanks to new book writer Carter Beane, it is also very funny with Nicholas Hammond as Prince Topher’s Lord Chancellor effortlessly establishing the comic tone early. Laughs also come aplenty thanks to the comic timing of Ainsley Melham as the dashing and also sincere Prince Topher, who is having a hard time finding his purpose in life, even though he is soon to become King.
Brisbane’s own rising musical theatre star Shubshri Kandiah shines in the demanding titular role of Ella, reimagining the orphaned Cinderella as a more modern heroine with the kindest heart in the kingdom who dreams of escaping her endless chores so she might one day see the world beyond keeping house for her ill-tempered and selfish stepmother Madame (Debora Krizak) and two stepsisters Gabrielle (Matilda Moran) and Charlotte (Bianca Bruce).
Krizak’s Madame makes Ella’s stepmother appropriately vain and tyrannical in her concern only for her wealth. Well-versed in the art of ridicule, she has a deliciously devilish tongue and Krizak delights in her melodrama. Moran and Bruce are similarly fabulous as stepsisters Gabrielle and Charlotte and it’s lovely to see how the story has changed to have Gabrielle secretly supporting Cinderella, while wanting for her own freedom to unite with her radical social advocate love interest Jean-Michel (a memorable Josh Gardiner). While Gabrielle’s character is fleshed-out, however, there is still recognisable traits to Bruce’s Charlotte, who is pantomimishly self-involved and ignorant of others, cresendoing in the campy ‘A Lovely Night’ during which, the morning after the Prince’s ball, Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters reminisce about the event only to discover Cinderella’s intuitiveness about what it must have been like.
Silvie Paladino soars (#literally) as the Fairy Godmother Marie, especially in her flawless share of impressively strong vocals in ‘There’s Music In You’, in which she encourages Ella to truly believe in herself. William Ivey Long’s vibrant costumes are a feast for the eyes, especially Cinderella’s sparkling glass slippers and the beautiful gowns that swirl around the ball scenes, and enable blink-and-you-will miss them costume changes such as when Marie transforms from beggar woman in reveal of her true self as Ella’s compassionate Fairy Godmother with a plan to get Ella to the ball by magically transforming animals into royal attendants, and creating a carriage from a pumpkin in ‘Impossible / It’s Possible!’
“Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” is a stunning spectacle of song and dance, especially in its big ensemble numbers. The dancing is sensational, whether it be the beautiful twirls of ballroom waltzes or the finely formed ballet number that opens Act Two with a chase of a pre-midnight fleeing Ella, featuring run through the forest as her attendants turn back into their original animal forms.
With musical direction by Simon HoltIs, the live orchestra finds the overall lushness of the musical’s score, but also characteristic motifs within individual numbers such as the sparkle of the couple’s eventual unite. And Melham and Kandiah join together to form some gorgeous harmonies, such as in ‘Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?’ in which, amongst all the excitement, the Prince and Ella wisely question their newfound love.
Directed by Mark Brokaw, this is a dazzlingly magical production, easy to watch, not just due to its story’s basic familiarity, so it is the perfect vehicle for introducing a younger audience to the magical joy that live musical theatre can bring. While refreshing in its take on a classic tale, it is also ultimately uplifting in its messaging and incredible production features, making it a lovely night out at the ball for invited audiences of all ages.
Photos c/o – Jeff Busby & Ben Fon