By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II set out to write Cinderella, their only musical to be aired over the nascent medium of live television, they could not have envisioned it would eventually be transformed into a full-fledged Broadway stage production nor that it would eventually be considered a part of their musical theatre repertoire to stand aside other beloved works like Oklahoma, Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music.
But that’s exactly what has happened. A popular folk tale of a common girl becoming royalty, this new version of Cinderella follows several earlier notable TV broadcasts with Broadway and movie stars Julie Andrews in 1957 and Leslie Ann Warren in 1965.
With a new book by Douglas Carter Beane plus new orchestrations and new arrangements by Danny Troob and David Chase, respectively, the Broadway version of Cinderella went from the small screen to the big stage, enjoyed two extended national tours and is now able to be seen in regional productions.
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society with its penchant for big stage musicals and its insistence on sparing no expense in the orchestra pit is the logical entity to present the regional premiere of this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The key to this production rests on the sumptuous music prepared under Donna Clavijo, the passionate conducting by maestro Dennis Assaf and the sumptuous singing of its stars.
Clavijo, it might be added, is enjoying her swan song with JPAS as she prepares to move away from the New Orleans area after a more than 40-year career here. Her departure makes the overall success of Cinderella somewhat bittersweet.
Starring as Ella, Rachel Looney establishes her presence with her solo “In My Own Little Corner,” the “I wanna song” early in the first act. Hers is a glorious, well-trained classical voice deserving of the attention of everyone in the audience. As good as she is, her voice soars even more when matched harmoniously with Maria Victoria Hefte, who plays Marie, the disguised fairy godmother who everyone sees as possessing several cards short of a pack.
In the songs “Impossible” and “It’s Possible,” Looney and Hefte achieve a vocal pairing that is nothing short of magnificent.
Later, it is Jake Wynne-Wilson as Prince Topher, a dashing figure whose voice pairs with Looney’s in “Ten Minutes Ago,” the song that celebrates the enchanted Ella and prince’s newfound love at the ball. In the second act, the two reprise that song, but not before they hold the audience spellbound with the 11th-hour duet “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?”
Playing the heavy, Rachel Abbate is Madame, the mean-spirited, vain stepmother, who cares for her two daughters Gabrielle (Bailey Gabrish) and Charlotte (Bree Hollis) above anyone else except her. Her treatment of Ella is contemptuous and condescending, while Ella returns her vitriol with kindness and respect.
Hollis has an outstanding vocal run with other ensemble cast members in “Stepsister’s Lament,” the number that opens the second act. In “When You’re Driving in the Moonlight,” Looney matches her voice with the stepsisters and her stepmother to “suppose” what it would have been like were she to have gone to the ball.
Supporting cast members include Tom Vaughn as the prince’s advisor and aide de camp Sebastion, while Alex-Christian Lucas portrays Lord Pinkleton, Sebastion’s confidante. Jiajun Hong plays Jean-Michel, a revolutionary who opposes the repressive measures being imposed on the kingdom’s downtrodden by Sebastion while usurping the authority of the naïve Prince Topher.
With 20 ensemble members, all possessing fantastic voices, this production would be impressive on that alone. But the fact is it is directed and choreographed by theatre and ballet veteran Kenneth Beck. The dancing and movement throughout the work is sensational and his work in the transformation scene where the mice are turned into a dancing team of horses and the fox and racoon become a valet and footman is inspired.
It is a particular pleasure to see Beck take the helm again for a JPAS show, because there are very few who could have tendered as glorious a production as he wrought along with the huge stage and backdrops afforded at the state-of-the-art Jefferson Performing Arts Center.
This is probably the best overall production JPAS has put on since its much ballyhooed The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 2018. Congratulations to David Raphel on his superb scenic design, Kathleen Homes for lighting and Kohen Verrette for sound design. Also very good wigs and makeup should be noted as having been designed by Amanda Bravender. Avery Colle and Christian Stewart designed many of the costumes being used in this production, which, again, should not be missed.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella’” closes this weekend after taking off a week for the Easter holiday at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive in Metairie. Tickets are still available here. Call 504-885-2000 for more information.