NEW YORK – Back in 1957, when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were asked to write a television musical version of the fairy tale "Cinderella," Hammerstein suggested that they make no serious departures from the original story as it was first told by the French writer Charles Perrault, who back in the 17th century was widely thought of as the father of the fairy tale literary genre with the publication, in 1697, of Tales of Mother Goose.
Although a version of the Cinderella myth can be dated back to ancient times when the glass slipper was a Greek sandal, the German brothers Grimms’ folk-tale take on the story would not appear until a century after Perrault’s Mother Goose.
Basically, Hammerstein didn’t see a need to trick up a popular fairy tale when he could just make a musical out of the story everyone fondly remembers from childhood.
Over the years, there have been three successful telecasts of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical fairy tale. The first was on black-and-white TV and starred Julie Andrews, fresh from her Broadway triumph in "My Fair Lady." It turned out to be one of the most-watched television programs of the 1950s. In 1965, a young Lesley Ann Warren did a color TV version of the show, and in 1995, the pop music star Brandy Norwood played the role with the late Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother. The latter two versions had slightly doctored books to keep up with the changing times, but for the most part, were based on Mr. Perrault’s original tale.
Fast forward to March 2013: A new version of "Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella" debuts as a lavish, $13-million, full-fledged Broadway musical with a radically rethought book by Douglas Carter Beane and directed by Mark Brokaw. Today what emerges on the stage of the Broadway Theater (53rd Street and Broadway) is a crazy-quilt rendering of the original work that only magically comes alive when the leading players – all stellar performers with marvelous voices – take musical flight with six or seven of Rodgers and Hammerstein lilting songs, holdovers from the original TV score, two of which – "Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?" and "Ten Minutes Ago" – are the composers at their melodious best. To fill out the evening, a variety of trunk songs are used, mostly discards from other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. Unfortunately, none is of the quality of those written for the show’s original score. Clearly, there are reasons that some songs end up in trunks.
The main problem with the current show is that the story Mr. Beane has conjured up seems like it was the contrived brainchild of a Broadway marketer. It is the basic "Cinderella" story (granted, a charming if fragile tale at best), waylaid by what seem like nods to successful family-fare musicals of the past. I detect a little bit of "Wicked" magic wizardry, some elements from "Camelot" and "Beauty and the Beast," plus a new heavy dose of "Les Miserables" social consciousness echoing in many ways the Occupy Wall Street movement.
I am not against a revisionist approach to any theatrical work and I have admired and praised many a redo effort in the past, but here the assemblage is just not that freshly inventive or satisfying. Rather, it is predictable and old-fashioned, resulting in a pell-mell telling of the "Cinderella" story.
Prince Charming (Santino Fontana) becomes Topher, a funny young ruler who is trying to make a name for himself and who just happens to have a wonderful singing voice. Cinderella is Ella (Laura Osnes), also an impressive talent. The formerly wicked stepmother and stepsisters are now referred to more genteelly as Madame (Harriet Harris), Gabrielle (Marla Mindelle) and Charlotte (Heidi Giberson).
We first meet actress Victoria Clark as a daft and decrepit figure, dressed in rags, who is magically transformed into Ella’s flying and singing godmother.
Mr. Beane’s script is more camp than yarn; it is liberally sprinkled with such contemporary colloquialisms as "faking it," "heads-up" and "end of discussion" that you would expect to hear on tween TV shows.
The direction by Mr. Brokaw is efficient and ordinary, which is surprising because you anticipate something more creative from the director of the Yale Institute for Music Theatre. The choreography by Josh Rhodes is mostly celebratory folk dances and whirling ballroom waltzes. Lots of thought and imagination have gone into William Ivey Long’s sumptuous costumes and Anna Louizos’s lavish storybook settings.
Many little girls in the audience sport Cinderella tiaras, but in the end, one can’t help but wonder what the great Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein would think of this curious attempt to refresh their classic.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.