Review: Zach Theatre & Deaf Austin Theatre’s Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella

An innovative approach to a marvelous play

(l-r) Krissy Lemon as Gabrielle, Sara Burke as Charlotte, Sandra Mae Frank as Ella, and Meredith McCall as Madame in Zach Theatre & Deaf Austin Theatre’s Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)

What a long, strange trip it's been for Cinderella.

Her defining folktale was born during ancient antiquity and has since been turned into a medieval illuminated manuscript, opera and ballet, Brothers Grimm fairy tale, animated mid-20th century Disney film, and a live-action made-for-TV musical penned by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist-dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II. More recently, it has become the stuff of Russian porn, a two-player video game that finds Cinderella doing battle with other fairy-tale characters, and a Danielle Steel romance novel, wherein our heroine is at the family winery in modern-day Napa Valley, “fighting for her legacy… and her life.”

For most of her journey, Cinderella has been little more than a pretty face with the right shoe size. But when the primetime musical was revisited for a Broadway run in 2013 – retitled Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella – she retained her sweetness but was retrofitted with smarts, savvy, and a driving sense of fairness that nicely counterbalanced her evil but humorous stepmother and Sebastian, the manipulative consult to the clueless Prince.

Currently onstage at the Zach Theatre is a thoroughly enjoyable rendition of this work, matching its charm, mastering its remarkable score (which includes a few rarely-heard songs pilfered from the creators’ expansive catalog), and employing impressive production values. Under Michael Baron (Lyric Theatre) and Brian Cheslik’s (Deaf Austin Theatre) direction and innovation, this Cinderella is being played by Broadway veteran Sandra Mae Frank, who is deaf, and she’s surrounded by a very talented cast and crew of deaf and hearing artists.

The play begins and ends in a modern-day library where, during an overture beautifully performed by a nine-piece orchestra under Allen Robertson’s wand, a deaf young woman (the thoroughly engaging Frank) and a hearing young man (an adorable Trey Harrington) have a chance encounter. There they share an interest in the Cinderella storybook of their youth, fall in love, and are magically transported to that fairy-tale world – gorgeously rendered by Stephanie Busing’s scenic and projection designs, Jeffery Meek’s colorful costumes, Serret Jensen’s hair and makeup, Annie Wiegand’s lighting design, and Anna Alex’s sound design, with Cassie Abate’s simple but alluring choreography – to live out that fantasy story as Cinderella and the Prince.

To accommodate the diverse casting and audience, all the play’s text and lyrics are projected on multiple screens built into the set pieces and the theatre’s side walls, and the actors speak English, English with American Sign Language (ASL), or ASL with no vocal support. This provides access, but it also showcases the artistry and effectiveness of both forms of expression when applied to musical theatre.  Also, deaf actors (Frank, the charismatic Mervin Primeaus-O’Bryand as the madwoman Marie/Fairy Godmother, the delightful Krissy Lemon as woke step-sister Gabrielle, and the endearing Gregor Lopes as Jean-Michel, a social activist and Gabrielle’s love interest) are assigned gifted singers (Mariel Ardila, Lee Walter, Taylor Flanagan, and Jordan Barron, respectively) to perform the vocal aspects of most songs. When Ella and the Prince both sing and sign in duet, which is the case in "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful," one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most perfect collaborations reaches new heights.

The one fault in this otherwise well-crafted production is that the Zach Theatre powers-that-be did not seem to have settled on a designated creative voice for this musical, with some performers (Lopes as Jean-Michel and Harrington as the Prince, for example) approaching the work broadly, as if it were children’s theatre, with others (specifically Kenny Williams as Sebastian and Meredith McCall as the Step-Mother, Madame) approaching the work as family friendly adult fare, as performers did on Broadway.

With Cinderella’s long journey taking an upswing, it’s sad to report that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bad Cinderella – a desperate rescue attempt of his recently failed London production – is threatening to open on Broadway later this year. Poor girl. Poor audiences.

Zach Theatre’s Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella
The Topfer, 1421 W. Riverside, 512/476-0541, 
Through March 5
Time: 2 hrs., 30 mins.

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Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Zach Theatre, Deaf Austin Theatre, Michael Baron, Brian Cheslik, Sandra Mae Frank

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