Let’s be clear. This is not about how at the tender age of 11, my heart was stolen by the captivatingly beautiful Leslie Ann Warren. I still recall her wide-eyed wonderment, in the role of Cinderella, when her Fairy GodMother (Celeste Holm) waved her wand and changed a fat pumpkin, six white mice, and two large rodents into, respectively, a carriage, a team of horses, a driver and a footman. It’s not about that at all.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella first appeared on the small screen (a.k.a. TV) before opening as a stage musical in London and on Broadway. Its latest revival at The Phoenix Theatre Company (TPTC) came with as much fanfare as a royal wedding. We attended a pre-opening performance, prepared to see some rough edges as the cast and supporting crew worked out the bugs before opening night. To our delight, the performance was absolutely flawless. Seriously, how much rehearsal is involved to achieve perfection in the pre-opening? Our hats off to the entire theatre company.
The lighthearted musical opens upon a series of idyllic wooded scenes. We are introduced to the two main characters, a simple village girl named Ella (Joy Del Valle), and the brave Prince Topher (Alex Branton), heir to the throne. Here is where we see the modern twist to the story, as both Ella and Topher are progressive-minded individuals whose compassion for others makes them misfits among their contemporaries. These are uncharacteristic trappings within a simple fairy tale. In contrast, nearly every other character’s motivations are self-serving and specific, especially those closest to our heroes — most notably, Ella’s gold-digging Stepmother (Sally Jo Bannow) and Topher’s power-grabbing Lord Chancellor (D. Scott Withers).
Charlotte, the conniving and self-absorbed stepsister, is played by Kate Cook. Cook is always great fun to watch because of her antic portrayals, here reprising the earthy raunchiness of her previous role as Guenevere in Camelot. Gabrielle, the second of Ella’s stepsisters, harbors a hidden sweet side and a secret crush on medieval activist Jean-Michel (Kendrick Stallings). Gabrielle is played by Michelle Chin, a favorite regular at The Phoenix Theatre Company. In every character she plays, Chin brings a subdued intelligence beneath a surface of childlike innocence. Stallings’ Jean-Michel is at once fiery and inhibited, vacillating between being a valiant renegade and a fawning subject of the crown. Overall, each performer adds depth, character, and humanity to the characters they play.
The choreography is dizzying. So much transpires within the bounds of the stage, sometimes spilling over into the aisles. Scenes of transformation — of which there are several — are both clever and magical in their execution. It is like Cats, except much, much better! So, a special hats-off to director Michael Barnard and choreographer Nathaniel Shaw (among others) for making all the pieces fit together so well. And kudos to the cast for executing it flawlessly.
And what of the Fairy GodMother? Maria Amorocho, who appeared last summer in Steel Magnolia, gives a heart-warming performance as a sweet old lady named Marie. Upon transformation into Ella’s Fairy GodMother, Marie rewards the gentle young dreamer for her generosity and kindness. Amorocho’s rich soprano punctuates each watershed moment of the story with such songs as “Impossible”/”It’s Possible” and “There’s Music In You”. As the theatrical magic stems from this character, Amorocho delivers an exhilarating performance that takes us on a fantastical journey.
Joy Del Valle is my Leslie Ann Warren for the 21st Century. With the physical grace of a ballerina and a smooth, natural singing voice, Del Valle portrays the perfect Cinderella, a beaten-down waif of a girl with too much optimism and heart to let her lot in life turn her bitter. In this modern day reprisal, Ella is an uplifting soul who inspires all those around her to do better and be better. In so doing, she earns her ultimate reward, not so much because we felt sorry for her, but because when you do so much good, then good things ought to come back to you. The fairy tale has thus become a life lesson.
I can’t say enough about Joy Del Valle’s portrayal of Ella. Are we talking “boyhood crush” revisited? Not really. I’m past the stage of having such feelings for anyone other than my wife of 42 years. But what is so special is that Del Valle’s Ella draws us into her heart and becomes an exquisite reminder of the nostalgic days of our innocent youth when our dreams were the lofty goals we thought were attainable. And indeed, some of them still are.