“Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” is a classic fairy tale with a clever modern sensibility

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Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella twirling in white gown
Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella at Paper Mill Playhouse; Ashley Blanchet (Ella), Christopher Howard, Erin Burniston, and John Barsoian; photo by Jerry Dalia.

Cinderella puts a new spin on a familiar story

For its holiday offering, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn presents Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, adapted from the duo’s television versions of the classic fairy tale. A revised book by playwright Douglas Carter Beane, first used in the 2014 Broadway revival, brings a modern sensibility to the familiar story. This production is a charming tale, filled with fine performances, beautiful music, and magical effects. It is perfect family entertainment in a crowded NJ theatre banquet of holiday shows.

Cinderella curtsy to the prince
Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella at Paper Mill Playhouse; Ashley Blanchet (Ella) and Billy Harrigan Tighe (Topher), and company; photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

We are introduced to Ella, called “Cinderella” (Ashley Blanchet), treated as a servant by her stepmother Madame (Dee Hoty) and stepsisters Gabrielle (Rose Hemingway) and Charlotte (Angel Lin). We then see Prince Christopher, called “Topher” (Billy Harrigan Tighe), as he slays a giant and a dragon in short order, accompanied by his knights and court Chancellor Sebastian (Christopher Sieber), his guardian since the deaths of his parents. While Cinderella dreams of adventure (“In My Own Little Corner”), Sebastian pressures the prince into holding a ball to select a bride. Meanwhile, Gabrielle falls for the impoverished town radical Jean-Michel (Andrew Kober), a friend of Ella’s, to Madame’s vehement opposition. She is left behind as Madame and her daughters leave for the ball, Cinderella sorrows for the lost opportunity to attend and is gently mocked (“Fol-de-Rol”) by the town looney, Marie (Donna English). Revealed as a fairy godmother, Marie prepares Cinderella for the ball (“Impossible”) by conjuring up a carriage, servants, a ball gown, and slippers made of spun glass. It’s love at first sight as Topher sees Ella enter the ballroom (“Ten Minutes Ago”), but at the stroke of midnight, she rushes off as the magic begins to fade. After a fruitless search, Topher orders a royal banquet to which all the women of the kingdom are invited, hoping the girl whose name he still does not know will attend.

Mark S. Hoebee, Paper Mill’s Producing Artistic Director, leads the cast through the story without a sign of winking preciousness. Although there are foolish or wicked figures— haughty Madame, scheming Sebastian, bombastic Jean-Michel, and man-hungry Charlotte—their flaws are treated humorously so as not to weigh down the charm of the story. As for the romantic leads, Ashley Blanchett and Billy Harrigan Tighe are convincing in showing budding young love, both in their scenes together and in singing the Rodgers and Hammerstein score, which includes “Loneliness of Evening” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” Ms. Blanchett, along with Dee Hoty, Rose Hemingway, and Angel Lin, has a charming and rare family moment performing “A Lovely Night”. The talented Donna English shines in all her numbers, especially the Ella-encouraging “There’s Music in You”. Choreographer Joann M. Hunter creates lively crowd movements throughout the show, including a frantic chase through the woods for the fleeing Ella and a waltz designed to prevent Topher and Ella from being together until the last notes. The set, a perfect fairy tale setting from Madame’s house to the forest to the royal palace, is lovingly created by scenic designer Anna Louizos, with Charlie Morrison’s lighting designs and Matt Kraus’ sound designs adding to the realism of this fantasy. The costumes by award-winning designer William Ivey Long are spectacular, especially in the transformations of Marie and Cinderella.

Billy Harrigan Tighe (Topher) standing in center of crowd of women
Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella at Paper Mill Playhouse; Billy Harrigan Tighe (Topher) and company; photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella puts a new spin on a familiar story, introducing themes of human rights and classism and the power of self-confidence into the classic romance of a prince and a commoner helped to their happy ending by just a touch of magic. It is a show of wonder balanced with romance and a little social activism. It definitely is not the Cinderella from the Disney cartoon, nor that of Julie Andrews, Leslie Ann Warren, or Brandy on television, but an original take on a classic story that succeeds on its own terms. It is entertaining and just plain delightful. You owe it to yourself to add Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella to your list of seasonal entertainments this winter. I urge you to get tickets quickly and make the trip to Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse to see Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella before its magic ends at the stroke of midnight!

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through December 29, 2019. For tickets and information, visit papermill.org.