By Judith Cookis Rubens
Both little princesses and their adult companions will find something to love about the Barn Theatre’s current production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.”
Director Brendan Ragotzy’s ambitious, fresh staging feels plenty modern, while keeping several, must-have traditional elements. In this telling, we get a more in-depth look at favorite characters. There’s the wonderfully helpful Fairy Godmother (here she whizzes by on roller skates and pushes the concept of free will and personal responsibility); a Prince who likes to stroll the streets as a commoner; and a vain Stepmother with an eye out for her own prince. Oh, and some cute singing mice puppets.
This musical was a smart choice for the Barn, which enjoys a large apprentice cast. The mix of veteran players and up-and-comers means bubbly energy and plenty of hands to make visual magic.
The musical version was created by Rodgers and Hammerstein specifically for TV in 1957 (it starred Julie Andrews), but two later TV movies followed (1965, with Lesley Ann Warren, and 1997, with singer Brandy). The Barn production seems to have combined elements of past movies, while adding some new messages about following your heart and empowering yourself, rather than the “prince will save you” message that so often gets Cinderella in trouble with feminists.
The main players are all standouts. Annie Wessendarp has a true Cinderella-like transformation from first-year apprentice to major star in her title role. She is one to watch and infuses Cinderella with self-confidence and ingenuity. Jamey Grisham makes a wonderfully reflective Prince Christopher, and he doubles as show choreographer. Another first-year apprentice, Amy Harpenau, delivers big laughs as the no-nonsense Fairy Godmother.
Hans Friedrichs has a delightful turn as the prince’s put-upon steward, Lionel, while Emily May Smith and Roy Brown make a fine pair of meddling parents, as the Queen and King.
But it’s the nasty trio of evil stepmother and two stepsisters who threaten to steal the show from under Cinderella’s very capable glass slippers. Penelope Alex is a deliciously vile and vain Stepmother, constantly picking at her ditzy, lazy daughters. Miriam Henkel-Moellmann, as stepsister Joy, and Natalie Sparbeck, as stepsister Grace, are a superb comic duo and they deliver a pitch-perfect rendition of the “Stepsisters’ Lament,” one of the show’s best numbers.
With such strong acting and tight musical values, this show is already a winner. But the Barn goes further, creating a magical land where singing mice morph into fanciful horses, a pumpkin becomes a sparkling stagecoach, and a pink castle glows in the distance.
Dusty Reeds’ well-designed sets and fantastic props by Amy Harpenau and crew are a big part of the magic. Michael Wilson Morgan’s rainbow-hued costumes harken to vaudeville style, but viewed as a whole in the big ball scenes, they add colorful energy. Wig and hair design by stylist Garrylee McCormick (especially the sisters and stepmother) assist the fantasy.
Grisham’s pleasing choreography, especially the grand ball scene, is well suited for the tight constraints of this stage.
Only a few sound glitches on opening night interrupted the flow.
Oddly, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music in “Cinderella” is not always up to the level of their past hits. There are a few notable exceptions – the Fairy Godmother’s “Fol-De-Rol” and “Impossible; “It’s Possible”; the Prince and Cinderella’s “Ten Minutes Ago”; and “A Lovely Night.” Those songs are guaranteed to stick in your head.
As with all Barn shows, it’s exciting to see such young talent learning and growing. You get a sense that these young stars, led here by Wessendarp, are destined for magical dreams of their own. We’re lucky to witness their transformation.
Barn Theatre, 13351 W. M-96, Augusta. Tuesday-Sunday through Aug. 21. $34. 269-731-4121. http://www.barntheatre.com