After the past few years, it’s probably no wonder that we’ve seen a raft of productions that err on the side of melancholy. Moulin Rouge’s Satine was destined to find true love and die before she is able to realise her happy future. Girl From the North Country’s collection of characters are perhaps more appropriately described as a collection of tragedies. Alexander Hamilton dies in a duel, and Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill deals with heavy themes such as rape and addiction.
So to bring a big, unabashed fairytale to Melbourne – and a Disney-endorsed, Rodgers and Hammerstein fairytale at that – feels like a big hug after a hard couple of years navigating the worst. As the streamers descended upon the audience during the final bow of opening night, a man behind me declared it was nice to experience a “traditional, cheerful musical for once”. He was right – watching Cinderella at the opulent Regent Theatre was almost like a reset; like we all suddenly remembered that it’s OK to smile. That we can actually enjoy a happy ending, true love, and all the rest.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Originally a live-to-TV musical written specifically for the small screen by the duo, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella hit the airwaves in 1957 (about seven years after the Disney animated version). Julie Andrews played the titular role, and her star shining brightly – with a little help from the fairy godmother, of course – she was beamed out to an epic 100 million people at the time. Evidently, someone forgot to record the whole thing, but regardless the piece endured; two more TV adaptions were mounted, as well as a raft of stage productions.
In 2013, Douglas Carter Beane adapted the original Rodgers and Hammerstein stage production by adding a few new songs, an updated character list and a new book that added a side story centring around the introduction of democracy into the kingdom and a sympathetic stepsister who has her sights set on the prime minister-to-be.
Thankfully, despite the updated political narrative, the new version still retained all the simple joys of the original – with the addition of some timeless, all-ages humour to boot. In fact, in my opinion, Beane’s adaption has improved on the original book by giving Ella a little injection of feminist modernity in standing up for her fellow townspeople and in ‘choosing’ to leave her famous glass slipper behind. They’re small changes, but important nonetheless.
Add to the unashamedly rollicking narrative, the original, catchy tunes and a touch of on-stage magic, and you’re in for a good time – no cynicism allowed.
In terms of the Melbourne production, it has stayed faithful to the book – and despite the fated timing in line with our own democratic election, the cast and crew weren’t tempted to add a few localised winks to the audience, thank goodness.
Shubshri Kandiah (Ella), somewhat prophetically, has the voice of a Disney princess and is perfectly suited to the role. Her warm likeability and graceful poise effortlessly offsets Ainsley Melham’s goofy Prince Topher. Todd McKenney is almost unrecognisable as the jaded, not-quite-evil Sebastian, and Tina Bursill as Ella’s stepmother commands the stage with her similarly muted yet malicious turn as Madame.
However, it is Bianca Bruce as the cantankerous Charlotte who was a standout performance on opening night; she embraces the almost-pantomime-y exuberance of her stepsister character without a hint of irony, and it’s just so enjoyable to watch. In fact, the entire cast is excellent.
From what I can see, the set pieces and costume design are an exact replica of the famed Broadway production – rich and colourful, and yet never distracting from the quality of the performances. There were a few laughs when the fairy godmother swirled above the stage on visible wires, but even this cheesy moment was seemingly embraced by the unflappable Silvie Paladino.
This is an old-school, over-the-top musical, with no apologies made about it. And after the last few years, isn’t that exactly what we need?
Cinderella is a night of fun, colour, humour, and magic. Cynical theatregoers need not RSVP for the ball.