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Cinderella's magic never fades

It's off to the ball again for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, when the new stage production premieres in Tampa.

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 26, 2000


photoFairy Godmother Eartha Kitt says she has avoided seeing previous productions so that her portrayal won’t be influenced.
Cinderella may be the most durable fairy tale of all.

"I've looked into other versions of the tale, and it goes back to 900 A.D. in China in its written form," said Gabriel Barre, director of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, a musical that opens a national tour this week in Tampa. "There is one for almost every different culture and time period."

The musical theater version of the fairy tale has gone through some changes, too. It was originally written for television, and the first broadcast production, starring Julie Andrews, drew an astonishing audience of more than 107-million viewers in 1957. That was followed by two more hit TV versions, one in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren in the title role, and then a multiracial one in 1997 with Brandy as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother.

"We had a really strong vision of the casting that we wanted in the show," said executive producer Ken Gentry. "We wanted to look at this from a contemporary point of view and make it a multiracial cast. Arranging the right casting took a huge amount of our focus."

Deborah Gibson, onetime teen pop singer turned musical theater ingenue, plays Cinderella. Eartha Kitt is her Fairy Godmother, and Paolo Montalban reprises his role as the Prince from the 1997 TV movie.

In a survey on prospects for a stage adaptation of Cinderella, Gentry found that people had strong feelings about it, and not necessarily in the way he expected.

"When we first started discussing it, we thought it would be a kid show," he said. "But we found a whole broad spectrum of people that are interested in this show and think of it very fondly. When I talked to people my age, in their 50s, particularly women, they knew the Julie Andrews show. Women in their 30s and 40s saw the Lesley Ann Warren one, and the young kids saw the Whitney Houston one. It's an adult theater piece, but it still skews to families coming to it."

Cinderella is a $2.5-million production, according to Gentry. At this point, it is booked to tour through next August.

"The response in Tampa has been pretty amazing," said Gentry, who estimated 10 days ago that ticket sales were already $750,000 for the eight-show run at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. That virtually guaranteed it will sell out the center.

Two weeks ago, the Cinderella company relocated from New York to St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater, where it put the various elements of the production together and rehearsed before moving across the bay for Tuesday's opening night.

From a theater history standpoint, the production will be noteworthy for its unusual genesis from small screen to stage.

"After the success of the 1957 TV version, Rodgers and Hammerstein were asked to do a stage adaptation of their own work, but they had a lot of other stuff going on and couldn't be bothered," Barre said.

Oscar Hammerstein II died in 1960. Richard Rodgers tinkered with Cinderella for the 1964 TV movie, but the material had never been reconceived for the stage until now. The new book is by Tom Briggs, who did a similar job of adaptation several years ago on another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, State Fair, originally a movie.

photo
[Photo: TBPAC]
Paolo Montalbon is the Prince and Deborah Gibson is Cinderella in Cinderlla, which opens Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
Adapting a play from screen to stage can be tricky, especially from television, where commercial breaks are immeasurably helpful in scene transitions.

"The biggest difference for me is that in the theater you want to engage the audience's imagination more," Barre said. "You can be more stylized in theater. For instance, in our show, I've added the use of animals that will be characterized by puppets. Cinderella will have a little animal entourage where she seeks solace from this cruel stepfamily she lives with."

Barre and others involved in the production have watched the TV versions countless times, but Kitt has not seen any of them.

"I don't like looking at other peoples' interpretations because there's always something that you don't like and try to avoid or something you do like and subconsciously you might pick it up, so I'd rather not see it at all," she said.

"Basically, one of the most classical interpretations of the Fairy Godmother is that there is the possibility of her being the spirit of Cinderella's mother. That's the way we are seeing her in this adaptation."

Originally, Diahann Carroll was cast as the Fairy Godmother, but she had to drop out because of illness. Kitt is best known for having played the Catwoman in the Batman TV series, but her roots are in theater. She made her Broadway debut in 1945 as a member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe in Blue Holiday. She has been nominated for three Tony awards, most recently this past season for her performance in The Wild Party.

Kitt auditioned once for Hammerstein. "In the '50s, when I went to meet Mr. Hammerstein and audition for South Pacific, he looked at me and said, "I'd love to have you play Bloody Mary, but unfortunately, you're much, much too young, but I will write something for you one of these days.' It never happened, but here I am with Hammerstein. Life is very interesting."

Cinderella brings Kitt together with two other members of the creative team -- director Barre and composer Andrew Lippa, who has written new arrangements for the show -- with whom she shares an odd kinship. Barre directed Lippa's The Wild Party off Broadway last season, and Kitt was featured in the other musical based on the same Jazz Age poem, composed by Michael John LaChiusa, that played on Broadway. Each show piled up lots of award nominations, but neither was a hit.

"It was really ironic how that worked out," Barre said. "Andrew and Eartha and I had a good laugh when we were finally in the same room together."

Not only is the casting for Cinderella colorblind, it's gender-blind. Everett Quinton is playing the Wicked Stepmother. Quinton, longtime member of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York, is a female impersonator.

"We auditioned many people, probably over a hundred women as well as four or five men," Barre said. "Everett is wonderful because he takes the character extremely seriously, and that's what I think made him the best choice for the role, not even considering his gender. I wanted to get someone who could really bring terror to the stage and make us feel for Cinderella and fear her situation, really believe in the stepmother's cruelty. This is not a campy rendition of the role. It is not a drag act. In fact, I'm hoping the audience doesn't know, or wonders, whether it's a man or a woman."

Theater preview

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella opens Tuesday and continues through Sunday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $22.50-$64.50. (813) 229-7827 or (800) 955-1045; http://www.tbpac.org.

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