It sounds like a wet dream of musical theatre, doesn’t it? A Cinderella by Rodgers & Hammerstein in a visually lavish re-make dating from 2013 when it won all manner of Tony awards for all its fol de rol and fiddle-de-dee which has been brought to Melbourne belatedly by the John Frost organisation after a dismaying Covid delay with a lavishness which is not quite stupendous but with stacks of colour and movement and transformational dresses that are almost enough to distract you from the fact that this is an upper-level straw-hat production, a tour version of the original abracadabra which has been re-staged a bit loosely by Josh Rhodes billed as ‘the production re-stager and choreographer’ rather than the original presiding eminence Mark Brokaw. And this tends to result in what looks like a purely reproductive importation of what was done in America, right down to the needless Americanisation of the accents, even when the musical drama is at its campest and most over the top. And there’s the further irony that the style is proto-British anyway (in American terms where high or even middle Australian is much closer to the prototype).
This is odd for a show which is not only set in a once-upon-a-time world (hence in a projection of our own) but the original Rodgers & Hammerstein Cinderella was Julie Andrews whose cut-glass soprano and flawless English diction always made her sound like the idealisation of the spirit that made the Empire tolerable so that it made absolute sense of the fact that only her foot would fit the silver slipper. And Julie Andrews’ gorgeous tinkling voice and dazzling diction had already been central to a great musical My Fair Lady when the Rodgers & Hammerstein Cinderella was broadcast live on CBS TV in 1957 for an audience of 107 million people. So this Cinderella preceded her Guinevere to Richard Burton’s King Arthur in Camelot that enthralled President John F. Kennedy just as it preceded her Mary Poppins (for which she won an Oscar topping Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle) just as it preceded the film of The Sound of Music though it’s hard not to imagine that the crystalline purity of her voice, both in timbre and articulation, must have led to her Maria so beloved of a thousand young girls and their mothers that they used to have special singalong screenings (rivalling in their way The Rocky Horror Show cavorting).
If you want to listen to Julie Andrews reprising and reprising ‘In my own little corner’ the original recording of beautifully tossed off minor melodies can be found on Apple Music on the album produced by the great Goddard Lieberson doyen of the wonderful Broadway cast albums.
This re-vamped packaging of Cinderella from the creators of South Pacific and Carousel seems a measurable distance from this and, needless to say, a lot further from Rossini’s La Cerentola let alone the Perrault story which was no doubt old when Perrault collected it in Mother Goose Stories (Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood) in 1697. This is the French side as opposed to Grimm’s recapitulation of the Germanic side of the folk stories, the fairy stories, which make us what we are (or at any rate structure our collective dreams.)
God knows what the realism-loving Hammerstein would have made of the gorgeous light-bespangled coach that carries Cinderella to foregone marital glory here. The whole production works by a lavish principle of excess with its crowds of sub-Dureresque peasants and boom-voiced courtiers so that you not only wince a bit at the sheer blustering campery of it all but positively crave the Queen’s English or some Antipodean dominion version of it.
We get Todd McKenney poncing about as an oleaginously wily courtier and wish that the production would just let him dance rather than gloat under his fifteenth century headgear. Or consign the effete wickedness to an actor’s actor like John Bell or Peter Carroll. Tina Bursill as Madame, the stepmother figure, at least gets to act in a hoity-toity version of her own voice but the way in which a sort of American boombox is used as the basic idiom of the show is thoughtless and adds to the residual parochial effect. It’s a needless distortion, more particularly as that idiom is itself over the top in its theatricality and its gestures towards pomp and circumstance so that the last thing we need is more overblown bombast.
Great tapestries that seem to reproduce and vulgarise Book of the Hours images of life fill the entire backdrop of the stage and humble garments turn into complex and silken glories at a touch. Everything seems to be making such an effort to captivate that you wonder at the great gulf fixed between the chastity of the music and the cheese platter of the visual and vocal ensemble which stretches the mind to snapping point. The music sounds like the torrent of lavish elaboration it aims to be and no one is liable to deny that they’re having a lush and easy time of it. Silvie Paladino as Marie, the wonder woman of pumpkins and magical slippers that will only fit the foot of the fated princess to be, is in fine and commanding voice and probably the most intense and sustained performance of the night is from Ainsley Melham – last seen in Kiss of the Spider Woman – who succeeds, alone of all this crowd, in inhabiting the somewhat idle re-write of the refurbished book by Douglas Carter Beane who presided over not only the rather cluttered and feebly politicised new storyline but the extra lyrics. And Melham achieves a driving concentration and naturalness that does more than anything else to keep this slightly off-centre version of a show forever taking a bath in its own status as self-delighting tosh on course.
So what of the summit of all these endeavours, Cinderella herself? On opening night Shubrishi Kandiah was a personable but not magnetising Cinderella. It was good to see a singer-actress of Indian background commanding the stage with musicality and presence and attentiveness but this is not yet a performance which will carry the world before it: she’s not yet a natural-born princess. But let’s be fair. Julie Andrews’ are big shoes to fill and this performance is likely to grow.
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