Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A dazzling "Cinderella" returns to STC

After a five-year gap “Cinderella” comes roaring back in the Sacramento Theatre Company’s best- ever production, with a new set (Giullio Perrone), new staging, new choreography (Michelle Hillen-Noufer), and an all-new cast, except for the Good Fairy (Lucinda Hitchcock-Cone) and the two wicked stepsisters (Michael RJ Campbell and Brian Rodda). With a sly wink the pair are named Goneril and Regan, after the wicked daughters of King Lear.

Having enjoyed the earlier three productions I have to say that this one is the best ever, almost like a completely new show. Director Peggy Shannon tells me that both she and Gregg Coffin, who composed the music, feel the same way. Though the plot and the play’s 16 original songs remain the same, the tongue-in-cheek playfulness rises to a new level of artistry and ease. Also added are four mice (Joelle Jacoby, Tori Johnson, Cooper Salmon, and Kendall Jo Zellars), none of them blind.

Also retained is the appeal to both children and adults, largely through audience involvement, including a breakdown of the invisible fourth wall that separates the players from those watching. Early on, Buttons (Caleb Salmon), a pixyish vagabond with a crush on Cinderella, leaves a rolled-up painting of his at the fringe of the stage and asks the audience to call out his name if any character tries to touch it. Sure enough we find lots of chances to yell out “Buttons!”.

Later we get candy thrown at us from the stage, and the highlight has Prince Charming (Tristan Rumery) wandering through the audience with the glass slipper, trying it on random girls and women clear up to the last row. There’s also a deliberate fracturing of our willing suspension of disbelief, with references to Sacramento in the presumably medieval kingdom, plus a working-class Bo Peep (Jessica Goldman) who considers monarchy passé.

What’s new is particularly hard to describe, a blend of balletic precision and seeming spontaneity, infused with a lighthearted good nature, a love of life, plus a sense of caring, especially toward children. Before the performance began, children were invited to come up front to occupy the few vacant seats. And before intermission I sat behind Coffin, the composer, who quietly gave up his choice seat to a little girl and moved to the end of the row.

Dominating–and often stealing–the show are the wicked step-mother, Mrs. Baden-Rotten (William Elsman), and “her” two ugly daughters. Playing them in drag relieves female actors of having to be ugly as well as wicked. The trio make us laugh while getting away with horrors we would shudder at if women played the roles, like cutting off a daughter’s toes to make a slipper fit.

Morgan Cook gave us an innocent and pretty Cinderella and alternates the role with Hilary Wells. Among others in the cast are Kyle Welling as Dandini, the prince’s valet; Jim Lane as Baron Hard-up, Cinderella’s soused father, stomping around with one foot in a bucket; Barry Hubbard and Orlana Klip as an inept king and queen; Paige Silvester as a black sheep leading five white ones in dance; Jared Lee as a nimble dancing bear; plus others too numerous to mention.

Based on a concept by Paul Whitworth, with book and lyrics by Kate Hawley, “Cinderella” continues through January 4 in the Wells Fargo Complex, 1419 H Street. Performances are Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., Thursday at 12:30 and 7 p.m., Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20-$40. Call (916) 443-6722 or go to http://www.thegirlsarebackintown.com/.

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