Good old-fashioned fairy tales endure through the centuries thanks to their magic, their adventures, their archetypal characters and the themes that resonate deeply in the human psyche. Enduring, too, is the desire to mock, tweak or update classic fairy tales and their characters, including on stage, in such examples as "Into the Woods" or, as produced just a few years ago by Foothill Music Theatre, "Shrek the Musical." The illustrious musical-theater duo Rodgers and Hammerstein first created their musical version of the fairy tale "Cinderella" (in particular, the 17th-century telling by Charles Perrault) back in 1957, as a television vehicle for Julie Andrews. It's gone through a few other TV versions since then, but it took until 2013 for "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" to finally hit Broadway, with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane. This is the version currently presented by Foothill, and while it's still faithful to tradition, it also offers some refreshing updates, and makes for a lovely, family-friendly show.
You probably are well familiar with the main elements of Perrault's Cinderella: Kindhearted maiden Ella is forced into servitude by her wicked stepmother until a fairy godmother appears and magically turns her rags into jewels and a gown, mice into horses, a pumpkin into a carriage and sends her off to the prince's ball. The prince is smitten with her but she flees at the stroke of midnight, lest her magical accoutrements change back to their original forms. Throw in a lost glass slipper, a hunt to find the foot that fits and a "happily ever after" and you've got the gist, more or less.
These elements are all present and accounted for in Foothill's production, but the updated book aims to make the story more suitable for modern morals and sensibilities, including giving Ella herself (winningly played by Christina Lea) a lot more agency.
While stepmother Madame (a commanding Jasmine Johnson) is still pretty nasty, her daughters are much less so. Charlotte (Gwyneth Forrester) is a social-climbing buffoon but Gabrielle (Melissa Gialdini) is secretly nice, if cowed by her mother, and even-more-secretly in love with a local firebrand, new character Jean-Michel (Jomar Martinez), who longs to lead the common folk in revolution and make Prince Topher (Edward Clark) aware of the injustices in the kingdom.
Topher, fresh out of university and naive but well-intentioned, is lorded over by the nefarious Sebastian (Vic Prosak), who's been running things while the prince grows up. Topher longs to be a good king someday and struggles with the modern question of finding himself. When he meets Ella, first on a country road and then again, at the ball, thanks to the magic of village crazy woman turned fairy godmother Marie (Angela Cesena), he falls hard (but still, apparently, can't recognize her face very easily and needs every eligible woman in the realm to try on a slipper in order to find her). Ella, though, needs to gain confidence in her own self-worth in order to reveal her true identity, take control of her dreams -- oh, and help introduce some fundamentals of democracy into the prince's government. Though in this version Ella is a stronger character, she's still an abused doormat for much of the story. Her dedication to kindness and forgiveness, though, comes across as a conscious choice and her greatest power.
In director Milissa Carey and musical director Daniel Feyer's capable hands, the show is a treat for children and adults alike. The swoony, lush, recognizably Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack remains intact, with some additions recycled from other projects in their catalog. Some of the best songs include the godmother-led "Impossible," the romantic "Ten Minutes Ago," Ella's solo "In My Own Little Corner" and the ebullient "When You're Driving Through the Moonlight," in which Ella, stepsisters and stepmother share a rare moment of bonding. All of the leading ladies boast very fine voices, and Forrester is a Carol Burnett-esque standout in the comedic role of Charlotte. Clark proves, after a slightly shaky opening number, to be a very likeable prince indeed, and the ensemble supports the principles with aplomb.
Lisa Rozman's bright and texture-rich costumes, from the peasants' bright, folksy garb to Ella's magically transforming gowns, are delightful, as is the colorful, vintage-looking scenic design by Kuo-Hao Lo (the program also credits Mae Matos and Andrew Breithaupt as specialty costume consultant and speciality scenic designer, respectively, so presumably a team effort). Whimsical woodland puppets, shiny horses and red, smokey dragon's fire enhance the fun.
The show has enough winking self-awareness to amuse, enough plot and character development to feel refreshed and enough good old-fashioned heart, music and magic to keep audience members of all ages enchanted.
What: "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella."
Where: Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, 1235 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills.
When: Through Aug. 4; see online for schedule.