With the possible exception of Snow White, Disney’s Cinderella is the wimpiest of all the princesses, her resourcefulness in harsh circumstances limited to befriending mice.
The spunky heroine in “Cinderella: A Holiday Musical,” currently playing at the Growing Stage in Netcong, is not that princess. Barefoot and in rags though she is, when she first meets Prince Charming — Prince Jason, in this telling — she handily disarms him with a stick and runs him off the property.
This original musical —– book and lyrics by Alyn Cardarelli, music by Steve Goers — adds many such modern touches to the age-old tale. Cinderella’s surprising strength and grit is a welcome one. All the tiny girls crowding the Growing Stage’s lovely, mural-walled little theater could do a lot worse for role models than this plucky laundress-turned-princess, brought to warm life by Ally Borgstrom.
On the other hand, modern sensibilities do tend to set fairy tales off-kilter. Why is this bright, strong and resourceful woman stuck in her stepmother’s ramshackle cottage? The unconvincing explanation is that she can’t leave the property without shoes, and her stepmother — Erin Franson, far too young and pretty for the role — won’t buy her any. But it’s hard to imagine a tiny detail like that would stop this spitfire from hightailing it if she wanted to.
Perhaps it’s best not to ask too many questions. This Cinderella is charming, clever and sings like an angel, but she’s almost the least interesting character in her own story. (Prince Jason is the actual least interesting person, but then, the prince always is.)
The comedic supporting cast makes this show really sing: The production snaps into full life when the magical Godmother (Adrienne Reuss, resplendent in silver and feathers) arrives and turns a rat into a footman (Davis Cameron Lemley) to escort Cindy to the ball. Reuss makes the godmother a dippy fairytale Dolly Levi, exasperating and endearing and over-the-top, and Lemley’s rodent mannerisms all but stop the show. (In a fun bit, Rat’s dismayed to find himself in human form, and rejoices when his rodent attributes begin to return after midnight. His reunion with his lost tail is the show’s best scene.) These two get one big number, “Magical Me”; I would have given them a reprise.
And Dennis Connors — a dead ringer for the young Sean Astin — gracefully carries a ton of exposition on his shoulders as the Prince’s valet Wesley, serving as both the narrator and as the comedian to Prince Jason’s straight man. This has him running into the audience throughout the show – hiding among the small fry, trying the glass slipper on any number of tiny feet, and generally getting a workout.
These secondary characters keep the show funny and humming along. When the hero and heroine take center stage, the narrative threatens to grind to a halt.
But the young audience hardly seemed to mind, especially once Cinderella traded her rags for her traditional big blue ballgown and tiara. (Give Borgstrom extra credit for flawlessly executing a tricky quick change, transforming in the wings in the time it took for a pumpkin carriage to roll across the stage.)
The Growing Stage’s production is wonderful to look at: Costumes are elaborate and bright, and Perry Arthur Kroeger’s forest and palace set designs are simply lovely. Although it’s billed as a “holiday musical,” there’s no connection here to Christmas or any other winter holiday in the story itself. Just a dusting of silver glitter snow over the forest branches indicate the season.
This theater knows its little customers well: The interactive bits, as Connor dove into the audience again and again, captivated the kids at an opening-weekend show. And Brad Baron’s Prince Jason handled heckling from the pint-sized audience with aplomb. The coloring-book programs are delightful, and the chance to meet and talk to the players, in character, at the show’s end, was one of the evening’s highlight for a lot of the kids.
The musical itself may be uneven, but at least its princess is one worth admiring — and this production is beautifully done. At a quick 75 minutes, it won’t tax the patience of even young children. And you’ll probably be home in time for supper — a fitting end to any fairy tale.
“Cinderella: A Holiday Musical” will be presented at the Growing Stage in Netcong, Dec. 1-3, 8-10 and 15-17. Visitgrowingstage.com.