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You don’t emerge from “Cinderella” just whistling William Ivey Long’s glorious costumes. Not when gems like “In My Own Little Corner,” “Ten Minutes Ago” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful” are in the offing. But it’s a close race.

Based on the original 1957 TV production that starred Julie Andrews, the 2013 stage version, now actually titled “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” as if it were a math equation, equals a pleasant, diverting, lavish, peculiar evening of fine performances, swirling choreography and at least one heart-stopping moment.

It’s been gussied up with a new libretto by Douglas Carter Beane, whose contemporary take on the material is often at odds with the fairy tale stuff, but not to the OMG lengths that have set off some critics. Starting with a lush overture, played by almost two dozen musicians, the show sounds like something from the golden age of musicals.

Beane grafts contemporary jokes onto the famous Grimm Brothers tale. One character is described as “sweet and gentle, but nuts.” The not-so-evil stepmother claims “We are teetering precariously between upper middle and lower upper class.” And a “one-person, one-vote” election is touted as both special and strange.

The trouble is, Oscar Hammerstein is not like an earlier Richard Rodgers partner. That would be the tart Lorenz Hart who certainly would have insisted on a comic duet between the conniving stepmother, Madame, and the prime minister, Sebastian. Just think what Harriet Harris and Peter Bartlett, those two major theater clowns who play the roles, would do with it.

Madame and Sebastian are somehow (but inexplicably) in cahoots, angling to have Madame’s daughter Gabrielle marry the prince. But Gabrielle (a perky Marla Mindelle) is in love with revolutionary Jean-Michel, one of Beane’s inventions. The other “real” daughter, Charlotte (a terrific Ann Harada), is out of the running, but she does get to sing the amusing “Stepsister’s Lament.”

Cinderella, who wants to be known as plain Ella, is now a feminist with a penchant for altruism. It’s she who raises the prince’s conscience, informing him that the poorest of his subjects are being evicted from their lands, a realization that lets him open up to reality and find his true self.

We still have the glass slipper and the ball (plus a banquet to boot). Then there’s that aforementioned heart-stopping moment when the prince (named Topher) and Cinderella lay eyes on each other at the ball. What follows immediately is “Ten Minutes Ago” and a lilting dance so lushly choreographed by Josh Rhodes that you wish you could join in.

Laura Osnes as Cinderella and Santino Fontana as Topher are charming and ingratiating. Victoria Clark sings like an angel as the woman who turns from bag lady to fairy godmother. Her and Cinderella’s transformations from slovenly to radiant are fun.

Lots of elements are in place for the kiddies, especially for young girls. Lots of lines appeal to adults. Yet there’s a softening in director Mark Brokaw’s production that lets everyone off the hook, losing the bite that underlies the tale.

The happy ending remains.

--David A. Rosenberg
March 21, 2013

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